President Trump offered a new explanation for China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting Beijing may have deliberately allowed infected travelers to leave the country.
Speaking during a video town hall Sunday, the president said China let the virus loose either through “incompetence” or another reason.
“They chose not to do it or something happened,” he said on Fox News Channel. “Either there was incompetence or they didn’t do it for some reason, and we’re going to have to find out what that reason was.”
“Personally, I think they made a horrible mistake and they didn’t want to admit it,” Mr. Trump said, noting the Beijing regime “tried to cover it,” like an out-of-control fire, and were unable to do so.
“What they really treated the world badly on, they stopped people going into China, but they didn’t stop people going into the USA and all over the world,” Mr. Trump said.
China permitted people to travel out of Wuhan “where the primary problem was” and “also where the lab is,” he said, referring to the high-security Wuhan Institute of Virology that some U.S. officials believe is the epicenter of the outbreak.
“But you could fly out of Wuhan and you could go to different parts of the world, but you couldn’t go to Beijing and you couldn’t go to any place in China,” Mr. Trump said.
U.S. officials have said China’s Communist Party restricted travel from Wuhan to Beijing but not to other parts of China and the world.
The critical period in mid-January when the virus was spreading coincided with the annual Lunar New Year celebration, the world’s large mass migration of people for the celebration.
“In other words, they knew they had a problem. I think they were embarrassed by the problem, very embarrassed, and, you know, the case could be made, they said, ‘Hey, look, this is going to have a huge impact on China, and we might as well let the rest of the world [have it].’”
Mr. Trump suggested one reason for letting the infected travelers go was the Chinese leaders may have wanted to damage the United States because “we’ve had a great year against China prior to the virus coming.”
The president said the Chinese government misled the United States about the coronavirus outbreak that began in December in Wuhan, China.
“Well, I don’t think there is any question about it. We wanted to go in; they didn’t want us to go in early, very early. You’ll see that, because things are coming out that are pretty compelling now.”
China also tried to blame the disease outbreak on U.S. soldiers, and then as originating in Europe.
Mr. Trump also defended his response to intelligence reports that the virus was spreading to the United States.
Critics have charged Mr. Trump ignored warnings from intelligence agencies about the coming health crisis but the president denied that he failed to act promptly.
“On January 23, I was told that there could be a virus coming in, but it was of no real import,” Mr. Trump said. “In other words, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, we have got to do something, we have got to do something.’ It was a brief conversation.”
A short time later “I closed down the country to China,” he said.
Mr. Trump then criticized the Chinese government for blocking U.S. and international medical experts from traveling to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak.
“They wouldn’t let us in,” he said. “We wanted to go into China. They didn’t want us to go in because they didn’t want to have us see it. Maybe they were worried about competence, maybe they were worried about something else.”
Mr. Trump dodged a question on whether he is considering new tariffs on China as punishment, saying, “Well, it’s the ultimate punishment. I will tell you that.”
The president did not elaborate but said “we’re all playing a very complicated game of chess or poker” regarding interactions with China, which he said has “ripped off” the United States for hundreds of billions of dollars in technology.
On the government release of the results of the investigation into the virus outbreak in China, Mr. Trump said: “We’re going to be giving a very strong report as to exactly what we think happened, and I think it will be very conclusive.”
Asked about his friendly relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr. Trump declined to comment.
“I’m not going to say anything. I had a very good relationship. He’s a strong man. He’s a tough man. But I had a very good relationship with him,” he said.
“But this should never have happened. This should never have happened,” he said. “This virus should not have spread all over the world. They should have put it out. They should have let us and other people in other countries go in and put it out. Because people knew it was happening.”
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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