MAY 6, 2020
Top Democratic lawmakers say the Trump administration should share with Congress the allegedly “enormous” evidence showing that the coronavirus sprang from a Chinese lab.
Otherwise, they warn, the administration should quit hyping questionable information.
The demands come as President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo push the theory that Covid-19 somehow emerged from a Chinese lab that studied such viruses. Their claims are leading some critics to draw comparisons to the misleading way the administration of George W. Bush argued the case for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Asked last week whether he’s seen evidence that would suggest the virus originated in the lab, Trump replied: “Yes, I have.” But he said “I’m not allowed to tell you that” when pressed on what the evidence looked like. Pompeo on Sunday told ABC News that there was an “enormous” and “significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” the Chinese city where the disease first hit, but he did not provide details.
Others in the administration, including military and intelligence officials, have not been willing to go as far as Pompeo or the president. Instead, they’ve said they do not believe the virus was manmade, while downplaying the possibility that it was released intentionally. And while that leaves open the possibility that the virus accidentally escaped the lab, people who have seen the intelligence say there is still no evidence to support that theory, either—directly contradicting Pompeo’s characterizations.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been reviewing intelligence on the pandemic throughout the crisis — including a batch on Wednesday — blasted the administration’s messaging. “I’ve seen no evidence that connects the virus to the lab,” he said, though he noted: “I’ve also seen no evidence that 100 percent rules out the fact that it could have escaped from the lab.”
Pressed by reporters on Wednesday, Pompeo insisted that his statements were “entirely consistent” with what other U.S. officials have said.
“We’re all trying to figure out the right answer. We’re all trying to get to clarity,” he said, while accusing one reporter of spending her “whole life trying to drive a little wedge between senior American officials.”
And he pushed back against suggestions that there’s internal administration discord over the information. “There are different levels of certainty assessed at different places,” Pompeo said. “That’s highly appropriate. People stare at datasets and come to different levels of confidence.”
Republicans and Democrats alike are critical of China’s handling of the crisis, especially what journalists have documented as a slow-footed early response and a seeming reluctance to share information with the world. But Democrats in particular are wary of some of the anti-China rhetoric emanating from Trump aides as the pandemic has killed more than 70,000 Americans.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Vice Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) have written to the State Department asking for “all cables and information related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” a committee aide said.
“No one is defending China’s handling of this crisis. But the administration is working overtime to shift the blame away from themselves, and even our own health and intelligence officials have cast doubt on the Wuhan lab theory that the President and Secretary Pompeo are pushing,” the aide said. “If Secretary Pompeo has evidence, Congress and the public should see all of it, without spin and without cherry-picking.”
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have been continuing their regular oversight of the intelligence community, which has been providing updated intelligence to the panels on the coronavirus and its origins, according to people with direct knowledge of the oversight. As of this week, however, they said there was still no intelligence to back up Trump and Pompeo’s claims that the virus appears to have spread from the Wuhan lab.
“I think they’re basically categorizing the absence of definitive intelligence as proof,” said one person who’s seen the intelligence. “And that’s a dangerous thing.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unusual statement last week that said while the intelligence community concurred with scientists that the virus was not man-made, agencies were still investigating its origins—whether it was transmitted naturally from an animal to a human, or whether the lab was somehow involved.
The statement prompted Democrats to demand to see the evidence.
“If there is anything to have high confidence about in that regard, or enormous evidence, they have yet to share that with Congress,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on MSNBC on Monday, referring to Trump and Pompeo. “And we are told that we are currently informed on the latest intelligence. So I don’t know where they’re getting this, apart from either expressing their desire, or they are withholding information from Congress — but I don’t see what would be gained by doing so.”
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel expects the administration to produce any and all intelligence it has received about the origins of the novel coronavirus.
“It is our expectation that on a subject this important the [intelligence community] and the administration will absolutely share everything with the SSCI, and to the extent possible, the rest of Congress and the public,” he said. “And we continue to discuss their collection and what they’re seeing pretty much on a daily basis.”
In a statement Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the onus is on China’s ruling Communist Party to be honest about what transpired.
“Critics of this administration should ask themselves: Have any independent scientists or doctors, from outside China, confirmed the origin of the virus? Not only has the Chinese Communist Party stonewalled the world at every turn, but it continues to refuse requests to share isolates, clinical specimens, and details about December patients and patient zero,” Ortagus said.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, said the U.S. does not know where the virus first originated, including whether it was from a lab or a wet market where Chinese purchase fresh meat.
“Did it come out of the virology lab in Wuhan? Did it occur in a wet market there in Wuhan? Did it occur somewhere else? And the answer to that is: ‘We don’t know.’” the Army general told reporters, adding that the U.S. will keep investigating.
But at least one of America’s closest intelligence allies, Australia, which is part of a five-country intelligence-sharing arrangement known as the Five Eyes, is now openly shooting down the Wuhan lab leak theory. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Tuesday that while nothing can be ruled out yet, a market selling live animals was “most likely” the origin of the pandemic.
Aides to several top Republican lawmakers either did not respond to questions about whether they want the administration to share more information or they declined to offer comment.
One exception was Sen. Rand Paul’s office. The Kentucky Republican was himself infected by the virus but has been back at work in recent days.
“The White House is in regular touch with our office, and Senator Paul regularly speaks with President Trump,” said Sergio Gor, Paul’s deputy chief of staff. “We have been kept informed and provide input when asked. While we don’t discuss private conversations with the administration or the president, we have been kept fully informed.”
Several Republican lawmakers have pushed versions of the Wuhan lab theory without offering any evidence, while most have remained silent. Some, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, one of the early proponents of the idea, see the Trump administration’s tough approach to China as critical to reducing the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the long run.
Trump administration officials have differed, however, over to what extent it even matters whether the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab or leaped from bats to another animal before infecting humans, as most scientists believe.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told National Geographic magazine that the science so far indicates that the virus evolved naturally and was not doctored in a lab. When asked what if the virus had been taken from nature to the lab, then escaped the lab, Fauci downplayed the implications.
“But that means it was in the wild to begin with,” he said. “That’s why I don’t get what they’re talking about [and] why I don’t spend a lot of time going in on this circular argument.”
The coronavirus has spread to more than 180 countries and killed more than 260,000 people worldwide, wrecking economies along the way. Trump initially downplayed the spread of the disease — saying it was under control in the United States and repeatedly praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s handling of the outbreak. But in recent weeks, the president and his aides have sought to deflect criticism of the mounting death toll by pointing to suspicions of a Chinese coverup.
A Department of Homeland Security intelligence report reviewed by POLITICO on Sunday accused China of essentially hoarding medical supplies in January in preparation for a pandemic, dramatically increasing its imports and decreasing its exports while hiding the details of the Covid outbreak from the world. Pompeo affirmed the report during his Sunday TV interview, saying it showed “the Chinese Communist Party did all that it could to make sure that the world didn’t learn in a timely fashion about what was taking place.”
China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, called for an end to the “blame game” in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday, arguing that while “there is no denying that the first known case of covid-19 was reported in Wuhan…this means only that Wuhan was the first victim of the virus.”
Tiankai also suggested that China had proof that it had been keeping Washington apprised of the virus’ spread from early on: “In their phone calls, President Xi Jinping gave detailed accounts of China’s measures to President Trump,” he wrote.
Concerns about the Wuhan lab’s safety practices are not entirely unfounded. According to a report last month in the Washington Post, U.S. diplomats in 2018 visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology and were so concerned about some of the safety practices there that they sent cables to their superiors saying the lab deserved attention and help. According to the Post, one of the cables warned that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses risked a new pandemic.
And in 2004, two people who worked with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus at a lab in Beijing were infected by it in apparently separate incidents, according to reports at the time. The outbreak was eventually contained, but not before infecting at least nine people and killing one, according to those reports.
Still, critics of the administration see dark motives and even darker implications.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama Pentagon and State Department political appointee who is now with the Center for a New American Security, said Pompeo in particular seemed to be trying to manipulate the public narrative — an “American disinformation campaign.”
Goldenberg drew parallels to the Bush administration’s incorrect insistence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and its attempts to justify a U.S. invasion of Iraq in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The Bush administration never actually said Saddam was responsible for 9/11. They just asked questions. They made statements about Saddam and in the next statement they talked about 9/11,” Goldenberg said. “Pompeo is doing the same thing. He’s putting the two things next to each other, and they’re putting an impression out to the public.”
Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, dismissed such analogies. “No one is making a case for war, so gross comparisons like this are neither fair nor helpful in holding the Chinese Communist Party to account,” she said.
Murphy, however, slammed the motivations of Pompeo and others.
“They’re being terribly irresponsible because their statements on the origin of the virus are driven by political considerations,” he said. “This administration is scurrying to try to deflect blame from a president who is floundering in his response to the epidemic. And China is a very convenient scapegoat.”
He added: “What worries me is that this escalation of rhetoric, back and forth, between the U.S. and China, it comes with consequences. We should call the Chinese out on what they’ve done wrong. But the hyperbole the administration is engaged in for political reasons hurts our efforts to try to fight the disease in the short term and long run. Ultimately, we need to have some cooperative relationship with the Chinese on battling pandemic diseases.”