“It wasn’t your fault that this happened, it was China’s fault,” Trump said in a video from the White House Wednesday, in which he touted his own recovery from the virus that has infected multiple top administration officials, and touted a supposed cure. “China’s going to pay a big price what they’ve done to this country.”
Trump’s promises to make China “pay” is more likely a reference to pushing Beijing on trade, a key focus of his administration, but even there, it is not clear that continued aggression will pay off, with both countries hurting from the ongoing trade war and China becoming increasingly intransigent after months of stalled negotiations.
In the vice presidential debate Thursday, Trump’s deputy Mike Pence largely dodged the question of Washington’s relationship with China (as did his rival, Kamala Harris), instead pivoting to attack Beijing for its handling of the pandemic.
Such answers are clearly aimed at a domestic audience, with the administration looking to divert the blame for its own alleged mishandling of the pandemic, which has hit the US worse than any other country.
But it’s not clear that Pence or Trump’s approach is wise there either. As Harris noted during the debate with Pence, Washington knew as early as January about the potential danger of the virus, which was still then largely confined to China, but did not take major action until it had arrived in the US.
“Can you imagine if you knew on January 28 as opposed to March 13 what they knew? What you might have done to prepare?” Harris said. “They knew and they covered it up.”
Multiple other governments much closer to China and exposed to the pandemic earlier reacted faster and handled infections better than Washington, including Taiwan and Vietnam, both of which are now largely virus free.
Trump has long sought to blame the pandemic on China, but this chain of causation only goes so far. He has to hope that when they vote next month, enough Americans will not decide that it was his actions, regardless of how the virus started spreading, which led to the dire situation the country is now facing.