Former national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir has renewed concerns that President Donald Trump undermined his administration’s early attempts to grapple with China’s spreading coronavirus outbreak out of concern for his personal relationship with President Xi Jinping.
While Bolton had already departed the White House when Covid-19 widely emerged as a health threat in December 2019, the former adviser writes that he saw hallmarks of Trump’s efforts to prioritize his own re-election worries or personal relationship with Xi ahead of public health concerns.
Trump publicly praised China’s handling of its outbreak across January and February, even as his health and national security deputies concluded that China was concealing information and pushed to gain access to the country — and the virus likely worsened in the United States, undetected.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 24, four days after the first case was confirmed in the United States. “In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” Other presidential tweets in early February praised Xi for his “strong” and “sharp” response.
The tweets were counterproductive, said two current and one former official, noting that China had yet to provide key information about the virus’ origins or allow U.S. health officials into the country; negotiations would stretch on through February.
“Having the president applaud China for transparency while we’re trying to get China to actually be transparent” weakened the U.S. position, said the official, who has been involved in the coronavirus response. It also was a lost opportunity to push China in a long-running battle over access to the country’s public health information, dating back to previous outbreaks, the official added.
The White House declined to comment on Trump’s early dealings with China over the outbreak, or his relationship with Xi, pointing instead to recent comments from top officials disputing Bolton’s claims.
“Whatever Bolton is saying about China is just silly, because this president has been the toughest president on China of any American president ever,” trade adviser Peter Navarro said on CNN on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the current and former officials said it still isn’t clear how much Trump’s public applause for China ultimately hindered U.S. access to Chinese information during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Would a harder stance really have changed things?” asked a former administration official. “China’s a [cluster of problems]. You never know if public embarrassment’s going to make them give you things or make them clam up.”
But Bolton painted a vivid picture of a president who sought favors from the Chinese president, telling Xi directly that a commitment by China to purchase more U.S.-grown soybeans and other agricultural products would help him win a second term.
Despite being out of the White House at the time, Bolton asserts in his memoir that Trump took steps to restrict information in the United States about the virus “for fear of adversely affecting the elusive definitive trade deal with China, or offending the ever-so-sensitive Xi.” Restricting the information made no sense, given China’s own role in concealing the origins and spread of the disease, Bolton argues.
Asked about Bolton’s claims about Trump and coronavirus, a spokesperson for Bolton referred to his recent interviews with the media.
“I think we lost a lotta time” because of Trump’s passive approach to engaging China on the virus, Bolton told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz earlier this month. “That is an example of making policy out of your hip pocket, without systematic consideration of what needs to be done, despite being warned by the people charged with making the warnings that it was coming.”
Trump made clear inside the White House that he was concerned about antagonizing the Chinese in the early days of the response, influencing the administration’s overall policy. Some of Trump’s advisers were irked by the president’s “soft touch” with Xi and felt that a more aggressive stance was warranted, The Washington Post reported in February.
Longtime China hands said they understood Bolton’s concern that Trump was influenced by the status of the trade deal, which the president has sought to hammer out ahead of this fall’s election.
“Many of us were not surprised by the revelations on the trade deal in the Bolton book because they were entirely consistent with what the president was saying publicly for months,” said Zack Cooper, who tracks U.S.-China policy for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The president’s been public on this in recent weeks — he was trying to do a deal in January, and he didn’t want to do anything to damage the deal.”
In other sections of the book, Bolton details examples of Trump hesitating to confront Xi and even appealing to China for help in his re-election campaign.
Quotes from Bolton’s new book have circulated online — and inside the administration — for days.
“Bolton raises good questions that Trump should answer,” said one official involved in the coronavirus response. “Why be so nice to Xi when all of your deputies are telling you what we need from him? That was the time to be the tough reality show guy.”
Trump has since adopted a much more aggressive tone on China, blaming the country for unleashing the pandemic on the world.