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Blame and counter-charges: the U.S.-China rhetorical war over COVID-19

The rhetorical war between the U.S. and China is growing more aggressive by the day. Now, the Trump White House is boosting a theory that the novel coronavirus was accidentally released from a lab in China’s Wuhan, where the outbreak began. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Antony Blinken, senior foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden, and Rebeccah Heinrichs, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The war of words between Beijing and Washington is getting more aggressive by the day.

    Now the Trump White House is boosting a theory that says the coronavirus was accidentally released from a research lab in Wuhan, where the outbreak began.

    Here's Nick Schifrin on the tense international politics of the pandemic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, that war of words accelerated yesterday, with both President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laying the blame on China, and specifically on that lab in Wuhan.

    Let's take a listen to President Trump last night on a FOX News town hall, suggesting that coronavirus was accidentally released from that lab.

  • President Donald Trump:

    And my opinion is, they made a mistake, they tried to cover it, they tried to put it out. It's like a fire. It's really like trying to put out a fire.

    They couldn't put out the fire. What they really treated the world badly on, they stopped people going into China, but they didn't stop people going into the USA And all over the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, is President Trump and the Trump administration right to point the finger at China for the coronavirus and the spread to the United States and the rest of the world?

    For that, we get two views.

    Tony Blinken is senior foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate Joe Biden. He served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. And Rebeccah Heinrichs is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. She's worked as a foreign policy adviser to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

    Thank you very much. Welcome, both, back to the "NewsHour."

    Tony Blinken, let me start with you.

    So, has President Trump been correct in pointing out that China, at least locally, covered up the virus in the early days and that led to the spread of COVID-19?

  • Tony Blinken:

    So, that's only half the story.

    Clearly, China, the government of China, has to be held accountable for failing to provide information in a timely fashion, failing to give access to international inspectors to get to the bottom of what happened.

    But the other half of the story is this. Unfortunately, tragically, the Trump administration took down or undermined a lot of defenses that previous administrations had put in place to be able to warn of a pandemic, including a pandemic emerging from China.

    And then, when the pandemic emerged in China, and the system was flashing red, the president did virtually nothing about it and, unfortunately, misled the American people for the better part of two months about this danger that was heading our way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK, Rebeccah Heinrichs, you just heard a blaming of China, but.

    Do you believe there's a but there? Has President Trump failed in his response over the last few months?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    No, I think it is much too early to give such a harsh grade to the Trump administration, when we are just adapting to the data that comes in.

    The critical piece of why the Trump administration is so right to make sure that they counter the narrative that the Chinese government maybe made a mistake, but isn't ultimately to blame, to counter that argument, you have to go out there and say what is true.

    And the truth of the matter is, it's not just that the Chinese government covered up, they obfuscated, they lied, they didn't give the information they needed, but they continue to this day to silence doctors, to censor academic research within China related to the origins of the virus.

    The onus is on the Chinese government, because it originated in their country, to show the world where this thing comes from, provide all of the data that individuals need.

    And even to this day, they're still imprisoning people, disappearing people and censoring them, which that is what — that is why there is such suspicion surrounding all of this. If China wants to be a world player, they are going to have to act like a responsible actor and demonstrate that, they can be trusted on something so serious as this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tony Blinken, in late December, there were doctors in Wuhan who were trying to sound the alarm. Those people were silenced. And it took China weeks, at least publicly, to admit that there was human-to-human transmission.

    Is the Trump administration right to point all those things out?

  • Tony Blinken:

    You know, I agree with Rebeccah that, as a great nation, China has great responsibilities. And in this case, the responsibilities are even more acute because the virus originated in China.

    But we have great responsibilities too. And our administration in particular does. And so, when you take down virtually all of the programs and personnel that were put in place by previous administrations to predict, prevent and mitigate a pandemic, including one originating in China, that is a problem.

    And then, when the pandemic starts to emerge in China, and you ignore your own intelligence community, not once, not twice, but a dozen times — remember, before 9/11, there was a famous item in the president's daily brief saying, bin Laden determined to attack United States.

    That is based on post-reporting, the equivalent of what President Trump received, not once, not twice, but a dozen times, in January and February. And not only did he not insist that China live up to its responsibilities by giving access to our inspectors, by making sure that information was forthcoming.

    Instead, at that very moment, when China was not being forthcoming, what did he do? He praised the government in Beijing for being transparent. He praised it for its cooperation.

    And I might point out, at the very — that very moment, Joe Biden was calling on the president not to take the government's word for it in China, to hold them to account, to insist on the information, to get our inspectors into labs in Wuhan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, I have talked to intelligence community officials who confirm that, yes, they were trying to sound the alarm in January.

    I have talked to National Security Council officials who also were trying to sound the alarm within the administration. And they do fear that their response wasn't quick enough.

    What about that? Was the administration's response quick enough? Should the president have been more critical of China in January than he really was?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    But I think if you look at — there was a — there is a disconnect between the president's rhetoric through the early part of March and his policies that he implemented, including the travel restrictions from China into the United States.

    And I think part of that was because he was trying to calibrate a response, to instill some trust in the market, not knowing exactly the effect that this virus is going to have in the United States.

    I do think that that was a mistake. That paled in comparison to, I think, a lot of the good the administration is doing with the information they have.

    And, again, it is not a side issue to keep going back to China. It is the central issue, because the — some of the — when President Trump sent out that tweet in mid-January, my understanding is, the administration was desperately trying to get Americans in country to get ahold of the sequence for COVID-19 in order to get information.

    And so the president believed that he could flatter Xi Jinping, at least enough to smooth out that relationship to get Americans in country, and that was his primary concern.

    We can argue over whether or not that was wise, but we can understand the motivation for him doing that. He's not confused about the nature of the CCP.

    To this day, there was a doctor in Shanghai that was trying to sound the alarm and give the genome sequence to other individuals outside the country. And then that lab was promptly shut down by the CCP.

    The wet market was sanitized. The animals were destroyed, rather than having lab work from the — from the animals, when the WHO went in country.

    All of these things are — lead many people to be suspicious about why the Chinese government isn't being open and honest.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I want to quickly turn to world leadership in the time have that I have left.

    Tony Blinken, the World Health Organization repeated Chinese claims, which we now know to be incorrect, that the virus had no human-to-human transmission through January. And the Trump administration, of course, has been very critical of the WHO, and has frozen funds to the WHO because of some of those mistakes early on.

    Do you believe that that freezing could help create the reforms in the WHO that many believe are necessary?

  • Tony Blinken:

    As to the WHO, it clearly fell short of the mark.

    But it's ironic, because the president says the WHO was not quick enough in pointing the finger at what was going on in China and then wasn't critical enough of the Chinese government, which, of course, are accusations much more accurately directed at President Trump himself.

    Going forward, we need to make sure that the WHO can act effectively. My concern is this. As we pull out, who goes in? China. They will expand their influence in the WHO. They will expand their influence in all the places that we're retreating from as a consistent matter in this administration.

    That's not a way to exhibit American strength, to show American influence. It is a way, actually, to help the government in Beijing expand its own influence.

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    Well, first of all, the United States government money, combined with non-government money, has given more than $6.5 billion to our allies and partners abroad to fight coronavirus.

    That's 12 times the amount that the Chinese government has provided. And then, of course, the United States continues to be — I think, give 40 percent to the world food organization, the World Food Bank to make sure that the secondary effects that coronavirus is causing, the economic devastation to other vulnerable countries, to continue — that there is still food there.

    So the United States is still the world leader in generosity and benevolence. And you can see that in the midst of this global pandemic.

    As for the WHO, the United States has still contributed far more to the WHO, even though the WHO was essentially acting like a mouthpiece propaganda outlet for the Chinese government.

    And so it's not all about money. Sometimes, money isn't the thing that's going to influence organizations like the WHO. So I don't understand why people continue to say that we should be giving more money.

    And so I think that the Trump administration is absolutely right on to withhold funding until we see reforms in the WHO.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, Tony Blinken, thank you very much to you both.

  • Tony Blinken:


  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:


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