NEW YORK — During a 43-minute virtual town hall meeting on Sunday night, U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned China more than 40 times, as he renewed his attack on the Asian country for mishandling the initial steps in the coronavirus outbreak.
“This should have been stopped in China. It should have been stopped,” Trump said, while seated in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial during a streaming event hosted by Fox News.
“We’re going to be given a very strong report as to exactly what we think happened and I think it’ll be very conclusive,” he added, referencing the theory that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan.
“Personally, I think they made a horrible mistake and they didn’t want to admit it,” he said, doubling down on a claim last week that he has seen evidence that could link the virus to the Wuhan lab.
With the presidential election just six months away, the president has been turning to these virtual town hall meetings as an alternative way to address his supporters, with in-person rallies having been made impossible by the need to socially distance.
While facing criticism at home for its handling of the outbreak, the Trump administration is redirecting its fire at China’s response, a move likely to further provoke Beijing.
Matt Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser and a key architect of the White House’s hard-line strategy on China, maintained that the president was not speaking out of a desire for vengeance but along the policy lines his 2016 campaign was based on.
“The U.S. isn’t looking at punitive measures here,” Pottinger said Monday at a virtual symposium held by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, when asked about the notion of sanctioning China over the coronavirus.
“What President Trump is looking at doing is continuing with the policy that he ran on, the policy that he’s implemented, which is to have a reciprocal and fair relationship with China,” he said.
Trump’s remarks came on the heels of more aggressive claims made earlier in the day by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said there is “a significant amount of evidence” that the coronavirus came from a Wuhan lab.
A separate intelligence report by the Department of Homeland Security from last week said Chinese leaders “intentionally concealed the severity” of COVID-19 from the world in early January, according to The Associated Press.
Among ordinary Americans, opinions of China and its leadership are at historic lows. According to a survey published in late April by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of U.S. adults hold an unfavorable view of China, the most since Pew started asking the question in 2005.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, concerns are mounting about the anti-China sentiment in the U.S. An internal report presented early last month by the Ministry of State Security to leaders including President Xi Jinping warned of an armed conflict with Washington in a worst-case scenario, Reuters reported Monday.
The two countries have been trading barbs over the pandemic since March, with officials on both sides pushing unproven theories over the origin of the virus.
Last week, Trump hinted at additional tariffs for China. Canceling U.S. debt owed to Beijing was also floated within the White House, the Washington Post reported last week.