Trump’s Coronavirus Survival Strategy: Blame China

During a press briefing at the White House, President Donald Trump's notes show where "Corona" was crossed out and replaced with "Chinese," on March 19, 2020.

President Donald Trump is failing to provide the leadership Americans need during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the death toll of Americans succumbing to the novel coronavirus rises every day. But instead of doing everything they can to save as many Americans as possible, President Trump and some of his supporters in Congress and the media are already rolling out the first stage of their coronavirus cover-up campaign: blame China.

Beijing’s failure to act decisively when the virus first emerged in November 2019 put the entire world at risk. When Chinese President Xi Jinping first heard about the crisis, he had an opportunity to immediately share that news with the world and bring in external experts to help Beijing stop the contagion before it spread beyond China’s borders. Instead, Chinese officials initially sought to suppress information about the crisis. Once the news got out, Beijing delayed giving the World Health Organization access to Wuhan. Even today, Beijing still appears to be underreporting the nation’s cases and fatalities.

Sadly, at this point in the crisis, the Trump administration’s response has as many shortcomings as Beijing’s. At every stage, governors and mayors have begged the federal government to help. But President Trump spent weeks downplaying the gravity of the coming storm, refusing to implement the Defense Production Act to address dire supply shortages, calling the virus a “hoax,” and suggesting that it would disappear like a “miracle.” Even now, as the pandemic wreaks untold devastation in America, President Trump continues to refuse to take steps necessary to save lives and the economy. For example, Trump dismissed as “wrong” a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services watchdog report stating that U.S. hospitals do not have the supplies they need to help patients and frontline medical workers.

Today, the United States is the new COVID-19 epicenter, with more reported cases than any nation in the world. The United States also lags way behind on testing, so doctors and local leaders across the nation are “flying blind.” And the Trump administration still refuses to coordinate medical supply distribution among states, forcing governors to bid against one another on the commercial market. The result is deadly: Some states have more ventilators and protective equipment than they need while others are facing dire shortages and risks to their lives.

While Americans are dying, President Trump and his congressional and media allies are already launching their cover-up campaign. A reckoning is coming, and the Trump administration is working furiously to get out ahead of it with a massive damage-control media blitz. The plan: fan the flames of anti-China rhetoric to divert attention from the Trump administration’s direct responsibility for an untold number of American deaths.

This campaign started at the top, and others have followed. President Trump personally insisted on calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus”—a move that has triggered racist attacks against Asian Americans. In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) is going even further, pushing forward an effort to “demand reparations” from Beijing. Instead of demanding the Trump administration save American lives, Rep. Banks wants the White House to enact measures “forcing China to pay the burden and the cost incurred on the United States of America due to the coronavirus.” When the crisis first emerged, many prominent Trump supporters and Trump-aligned media outlets followed the administration in deemphasizing the severity of the situation. Now that Americans are directly affected, conservative news organizations, discussions on social media platforms, and some politicians are focused on pushing anti-China messages instead of pointing out Trump’s failure to address the crisis.

Despite recently toning down his rhetoric and praising Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump and some conservatives continue laying the groundwork to use China as a scapegoat for the pandemic. Even since Trump stopped referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” The Washington Post noted that Trump’s supporters continue “aiming attention at Beijing’s early coverup of the disease and emerging evidence that the Communist Party has continued to severely underreport the number of cases in China.” Trump attempts to shift blame on China by regularly highlighting the ban he placed on travel from China—despite both the ineffectiveness of that ban as well as recent evidence showing that the New York outbreak originated in Europe.

The goal of this effort is simple and dangerous: to erase the Trump administration’s responsibility for its deadly mishandling of the pandemic. This is a deft political strategy, because it is wrapped in genuine Chinese misdoing. The administration’s use of fearmongering against China also comes at a time when it can be politically dangerous to be soft on China; the Trump administration is seeking to leverage that political reality to cover up its own wrongdoing of epic proportions. Any prominent Americans who push back against the blame-China narrative risk appearing overly sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party.

From a political standpoint, China makes the perfect scapegoat. President Xi Jinping is desperately trying to shift blame away from the Chinese Communist Party, and one of Beijing’s tried and true tactics is to point fingers at the United States. That strategy has included a Chinese foreign ministry official suggesting the U.S. military could have planted the virus in Wuhan—a claim that is so ridiculous even China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, has spoken out against it. Beijing’s continuous efforts to avoid blame for the origin of the coronavirus makes it harder for the global community to work collaboratively to defeat the virus. It also makes it easier for the Trump administration to frame Beijing as the original culprit and use China as a scapegoat for its own missteps.

Make no mistake: Beyond its dangerously mismanaged initial response to the outbreak, China poses serious threats to American national and economic security. The United States must continue to take the appropriate steps to protect itself and push back against Chinese behavior that undermines American interests.

However, blaming China for the current pandemic does nothing to stem the rapidly advancing tide of American deaths from the virus. Nor should Beijing’s role in exacerbating the original outbreak be an excuse for the deadly inaction of the Trump administration, which enabled the virus to spread unchecked in the United States. Instead of using every lever at his disposal to help Americans, President Trump, along with his supporters, is whipping up an anti-China frenzy to obscure what may be the biggest leadership failure this nation has ever seen. Americans must not fall for this blatant cover-up.

Melanie Hart is a senior fellow and director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress. Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.