Republicans Seek to Punish China for Coronavirus as Trump Waffles

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence listens. Trump's diverging viewpoints on the coronavirus and China.

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President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence listens. Trump's diverging viewpoints on the coronavirus and China.

“Having the relationship I have with China is a good thing,” Trump says. But Republicans say China needs to “pay a price.”

Several Republican lawmakers are pushing for more aggressive punitive measures against China in retaliation for the spread of coronavirus, even as the Trump administration has carefully avoided threatening consequences for Beijing’s early obfuscations of the virus’s origins and seriousness. 

Members of Congress are suggesting punishments that include sanctioning Chinese leaders, cutting Chinese drug manufacturers out of America’s supply chain, withholding debt payments, and launching a U.S.-led international investigation into Beijing’s propaganda. 

Since the start of the pandemic, President Donald Trump has lurched from one extreme to another with China. For weeks, the president insisted on referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” flouting his critics who insisted the language is racist and plays into Beijing’s propaganda. Trump argued he was only defending American troops by hitting back at China for claiming the virus was started by the U.S. military. But he also continued to praise his relationship with President Xi Jinping as “very good” and “much respect!”

In recent days, Trump has answered most questions about China’s handling of the crisis by diverting to his tit-for-tat tariff war with Beijing over the last year. Asked directly on Friday if he had given any consideration to holding China financially responsible for the devastating spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump said only that he was “not happy about it.”

“Nobody has done to China, or treated China as strongly as I have,” Trump said. “As you know — you’ve reported on it — billions and billions of dollars is flowing into our Treasury, because of what I’ve done with China.

“I can tell you that we’re constantly in touch with China. We’re talking to China. And we’ve expressed how we felt. We’re not happy about it. We’re not happy about it at all.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Wednesday, “This is not the time for retribution, but it is still the time for clarity and transparency.”

But on Capitol Hill, some young Republican senators with hawkish track records on China are pushing a more direct retaliatory approach to China that would penalize officials for disinformation on the disease and extricate U.S. supply chains for critical public health goods from the Chinese market. 

“As we get through this pandemic, there has to be an accounting and a reckoning for China,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Cotton has been one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for tougher consequences on China. In February, he floated the unproven theory that the virus was a loose Chinese-developed bioweapon, rather than from bats in the Wuhan market. As recently as Saturday, he referred to COVID-19 as “the Wuhan coronavirus.” 

Cotton, alongside Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has introduced legislation that would authorize the president to impose sanctions on foreign officials for “the deliberate concealment or distortion of information about public health emergencies of international concern.” Hawley has also introduced a resolution calling for an investigation into Beijing’s “cover-up” of the early spread of the disease in Wuhan. Cotton, as well as Sens. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have also backed the resolution.

“China needs to pay a price at the international level: a full investigation into China’s initial coverup of the outbreak and ongoing propaganda campaign,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in an emailed statement that did not refer specifically to Hawley’s effort. “The U.S. should lead the international community in determining an appropriate punishment once that investigation is finished.”

Meanwhile, Cotton, Hawley and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are all pushing to slash America’s dependence on Chinese supply chains for critical medical equipment — ”perhaps the strongest rebuke we could deliver to the CCP,” Cotton wrote in an op-ed on Saturday, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. Legislation from Rubio has attracted bipartisan support from the far left: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as well as Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., are cosponsors. Cotton has introduced a similar, but more aggressive measure that would track active pharmaceutical ingredients through an FDA registry and prohibit purchases from China — including products with active ingredients created in China. (The limits would be phased in over two years.) 

In an even more dramatic suggestion, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that the United States should refuse to repay some debt held by China “because they should be paying us” as a result of the pandemic. 

It’s not clear that any of the hodgepodge of measures will get a hearing in the Senate. Lawmakers are not in Washington, and congressional leaders have been concentrating on short-term economic relief measures. 

Hawley, in a three-page memo on coronavirus response efforts, said that the fourth stimulus package should include export controls for critical medical equipment and require manufacturers to use more materials from domestic suppliers. 

“Never again should the American people find themselves vulnerable to the Chinese Communist Party for critical medical supplies and industrial components in a moment of crisis,” Hawley wrote. 

For now, Trump appears to be saving his fire for the World Health Organization, or WHO, and avoiding any direct confrontation with China over the pandemic. The WHO has become a target for conservative media and pundits seeking to shift blame off of the White House for any slow reaction to the outbreak earlier this year. The administration is reportedly weighing moves to “punish” the WHO by creating an alternative institution, according to Politico.  Several of the same GOP lawmakers have been deeply critical of the organization and have called for the ouster of its current leader, alleging that he was slow to warn of the spread of the disease out of fear of Beijing. Trump has also accused the WHO of being “too China-centric” and complained that the United States pays more than other nations. 

“They are very, very China-centric,” Trump said Friday. “China always seems to get the better of the — the argument, and I don’t like that. I really don’t like that.”

Although administration officials like National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien have been explicit in saying that Beijing’s early “cover up” of the spread of the virus cost the world “two months to respond,” Trump has not moved to penalize China. 

“I think our relationship, and having the relationship I have with China is a good thing,” Trump said Friday. “But for the first time, we’re benefiting instead of being the sucker that could — you know, that got taken advantage of for years.”

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