Multiple sources inside the administration say that there is an appetite to use various tools, including sanctions, canceling US debt obligations and drawing up new trade policies, to make clear to China, and to everyone else, where they feel the responsibility lies.
While there are serious questions about China’s transparency, the Trump administration has escalated its effort to blame China for the global spread of the virus as criticism of its own handling of the pandemic has increased. President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat from the novel coronavirus and suggested it would not be a problem for the US at a time when it was clearly already spreading around the world. Trump also repeatedly showered Chinese President Xi Jinping with praise for his management of the crisis as he sought to safeguard a trade deal with the Chinese.
On Sunday, Pompeo mentioned that some efforts that the Chinese Communist Party took were not seen, but others were public such as not allowing US medical professionals into labs in Wuhan, the city where the virus originated, and silencing scientists.
“President Trump is very clear, we’re gonna hold those responsible accountable and we’ll do so on a timeline that is our own,” Pompeo said.
Trump administration officials have been pushing the US intelligence community to determine the exact origins of the coronavirus outbreak in pursuit of an unproven theory that the pandemic started because of a laboratory accident in China, multiple sources told CNN. The President on Thursday contradicted the intelligence community and claimed he has seen evidence that gives him a “high degree of confidence” Covid-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, but declined to provide details to back up his assertion.
Asked about the belief expressed by Trump and if he had seen evidence backing that claim, Pompeo said, “There’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began.”
“We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan, China. We took a lot of grief for that from the outside, but I think the whole world can see now,” he said. He later added, “there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”
Asked Sunday about that conclusion, Pompeo said he agreed with it. Pompeo said that he has “no reason to disbelieve” the intelligence community, adding, “I’ve seen their analysis. I’ve seen the summary that you saw that was released publicly. I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate.”
Though Pompeo also echoed Trump’s statement last week that he has seen evidence linking the outbreak to the Wuhan lab, which contradicted the statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That statement said US intelligence was “rigorously” examining whether the outbreak was “through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Pompeo added that China “behaved like authoritarian regimes do, attempted to conceal and hide and confused and employed the World Health Organization as a tool to do the same.”
“These are the kinds of things that have presented this enormous crisis and enormous loss of life and tremendous economic loss all across the globe,” he said. “The Australians agree with that, you hear the Europeans beginning to say the same thing, and I think the whole world is united understanding that China brought this virus to the world.”
CNN reported last month that the US government was looking into the theory that the virus originated in the lab but hadn’t yet been able to corroborate it. In April, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the weight of evidence suggests the virus was of natural origin.
Asked about whether China intentionally released the virus or if it was an accident, Pompeo refused to give an opinion.
“I don’t have anything to say about that. I think there’s a lot to know, but I can say this. We’ve done our best to try and answer all of those questions. We tried to get a team in there, the WHO (World Health Organization) tried to get a team in there, and they have failed. No one’s been allowed to go into this lab or any of the other laboratories…this is an ongoing challenge. We still need to get in there. We still don’t have the virus samples we need.”
The US-China clash is brewing amid growing suspicion inside the administration over China’s rising strategic challenge and fury that the virus destroyed an economy seen as Trump’s passport to a second term.
There are serious questions to be addressed about China’s transparency in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and whether its autocratic system fostered an attempt to cover it up. The United States is not the only nation that wants answers amid a pandemic that has devastated the global economy and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
In response to building pressure, China has launched a propaganda effort to distract from its own culpability, including blaming US soldiers for importing the pathogen in remarks that infuriated Trump. On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused “American politicians” of telling barefaced lies about the pandemic.
“They have only one objective: to try to shirk responsibility for their own epidemic and prevention and control measures and divert public attention,” he said.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Rebecca Grandahl and Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.