Coronavirus: Trump steps up criticism of China as he puts his reelection over coveted trade deal

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'President Trump seeks to strike a sudden blow at multilateralism that will appeal directly to his electoral base,' former US official says

World | The Independent

Donald Trump and his campaign team are revising the president's 2020 re-election strategy in real-time with the coronavirus death toll in the United States over 61,000, and a major part is trying to further turn voters against China.

The president spent weeks referring to the deadly respiratory disease as "the Chinese virus," but dropped use of the term. He admitted there was a trade deal to think about. But as he increasingly lashes out at the Chinese government, it's clear there's something, for him, more important to consider: Four more years in the White House.

Mr Trump's national poll numbers against former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, tumbled this week after his suggestion last Thursday that Americans might inject disinfectant to kill Covid-19. The week brought more bad polling news for the incumbent: Mr Trump trails Mr Biden in six of seven expected battleground states that political operatives from both parties say will decide November's election.

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Only in North Carolina does Mr Trump have an advantage. But even in the Tar Heel State, which he won in 2016 by 3.6 points over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the president's lead is only one-third of a single percentage point, according to an average of several polls tabulated by RealClearPolitics.

Mr Trump's own willingness to push or shatter the truth, dismiss scientific evidence, ignore the pleas of governors, and contradict his widely respected public health team during his now-paused daily coronavirus press briefings appear to have done as much to change the 2020 campaign as anything the virus did to the United States or Mr Biden has done since all but locking up the Democratic nomination.

Still, the president's miscalculation that the daily briefings were boosting his odds at a second term already is allowing him to shift to a campaign strategy that is starting to more closely resemble his 2016 "Make America Great Again" bid for the White House.

And a big part of the revised strategy is a willingness to directly blame the Chinese government for an US Covid-19 death toll equivalent to the capacity of Soldier Field for Chicago Bears games.

As part of a new White House communications strategy of getting the president out of the briefing room talking about fighting the virus's spread and into meetings with governors and industry executives to talk about reopening the country, Mr Trump has shown a new willingness to call out China by name.

"It's in 184 countries, as you hear me say often. It's hard to believe. It's inconceivable," he said during an event with small business owners and employees on Tuesday afternoon.

"It should've been stopped at the source, which was China. It should've been stopped very much at the source," Mr Trump said sternly. "But it wasn't. And now we have 184 countries going through hell."

'Not going into China'

The US commander in chief went even further a day later, telling reporters he views Chinese and WHO officials as in cahoots. It's just the kind of anti-US conspiracy he sold to voters during the 2016 campaign.

WHO officials "seem to work for China, and they should have been in there early, they should have known what was going on, and they should have been able to stop it," Mr Trump said Wednesday, deflecting blame for more than 1m people infected in his own country despite reports he was warned by his intelligence agencies throughout January and February about a possible crisis here.

Just as he did four years ago as a businessman and GOP White House hopeful, Mr Trump on Wednesday pushed a conspiracy theory by suggesting unnamed Chinese officials looked the other way and sent Covid-19 stateside.

"Why did China allow planes to fly out but not into China? But they allow planes to come out and planes are coming out of Wuhan," he said, referring to the Chinese province where American intel analysts say the virus went public. "And they're coming out, they are going all over the world. They are going to Italy – very, very big-time to Italy. But they are going all over the world."

Then, the line he hopes will resonate with swing voters in blue-collar counties in those seven swing states, where manufacturing plants closed as work moved to China: "But they are not going into China. What was that all about?!"

That sharper tone came as his White House this week ordered two top American intelligence agencies – the National Security Agency and Defence Intelligence Agency – to investigate whether the Chinese government and World Health Organisation covered up the novel virus going public in China and its likely deadly impact around the world.

In essence, Mr Trump asked the intel services to find out what Chinese leaders, and WHO officials, knew and knew when they knew it -- and what steps they might have taken to keep the outbreak quiet. The Washington Post reported Thursday that senior US officials are mulling possible retaliatory actions or demanding financial compensation from Beijing.

Collectively, White House and Trump campaign officials appear eager to try salvaging the president's re-election chances by blaming the outbreak on China, a country that reams of polling data shows has never been viewed favourably by US voters -- be them Republicans, Democrats or independents.

'Rolled over for the Chinese'

Trump aides and the president, who admits he studies polling data closely, are mindful that US attitudes towards China amid the pandemic outbreak and national lock down are overwhelmingly negative.

Seventy-seven per cent of those surveyed earlier this month by the Harris polling organisation say the Chinese government is to blame for the Covid-19 outbreak. Within those numbers: 90 per cent of Republicans hold Beijing most responsible, and Mr Trump makes few policy or political decisions without considering his base.

The same poll, however, showed 67 per cent of Democratic voters blame China, and 75 per cent of independents. The latter voting bloc will be key in swing counties and states come Election Day.

But Mr Trump's attacks on China come with political and potentially bigger risks.

Mr Biden's campaign already is attacking the president for his previous unwillingness to go after China over its handling of the outbreak there, admitting during one briefing that he still wants to finish a two-part trade deal with the Asian power.

"Trump rolled over for the Chinese," the Biden campaign ad contends. "Look around. ... Donald Trump left this country unprepared and unprotected for the worst public health and economic crisis in our lifetime."

Still, Mr Trump's top election need is keep his base fired up so they turn out in big numbers in light blue and light red counties in areas like southeastern Pennsylvania and other areas that have voted for presidential candidates from both parties in the last several election cycles.

"By pointing the finger at China – the administration's preferred foil – and billing WHO as China's agent, President Trump seeks to strike a sudden blow at multilateralism that will appeal directly to his electoral base," says J. Stephen Morrison, a former Clinton administration health official and senior congressional aide.

"That step also satisfies the growing chorus of China hawks in the [Trump] administration and in Congress," added Mr Morrison, now director of the Global Health Policy Centre at the nonpartisan Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank, "who deeply resent China's Covid-19 narrative: that China -- in contrast to the United States and Europe -- took early and aggressive action against the coronavirus and achieved quick success which now permits the reopening of its economy."

  • Coronavirus: Trump steps up criticism of China as he puts his reelection over coveted trade deal photo

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