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Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy

The Hill logo The Hill 5/23/2020 Scott Wong
Xi Jinping in a suit and tie sitting at a table: Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy © The Hill Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy

Republicans are amplifying President Trump's anti-China rhetoric on Capitol Hill and in campaign ads across the country as the White House seeks to blame Beijing for a pandemic that has devastated the U.S. economy and killed almost 100,000 Americans.

It's a message that's playing well with Trump's base - nearly a third of voters say they view China as "the enemy" - and is reminiscent of the hard-line, anti-immigrant positions that helped catapult him to the White House in 2016.

But it's unclear if ratcheting up the pressure on China will prove to be a winning campaign strategy with the broader electorate amid sagging poll numbers and daily news reports detailing Trump's slow and shaky response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think the anti-China message has currency not just with the GOP base, but also with some swing and independent voters as well. That's why it's appealing to the Trump campaign - and you even see that the Biden campaign has dipped their toe in the water on this too," said Lanhee Chen, who led policy for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and advised Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign in 2016.

But Chen said two other factors will ultimately decide whether voters hand the president a second term in November: the state of the economy and Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis.

"The downside risk for campaigns of focusing on the political attacks against China is that it may appear as though they are trying to distract from these two principal questions," Chen said.

Until recently, Trump had a cozy relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He hosted Xi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in 2017. Xi returned the favor during a state visit that year, when Xi took Trump and first lady Melania Trump on a tour of Beijing's Forbidden City and to an opera performance.

Trump praised China's coronavirus response more than 30 times between January and March as the virus began spreading around the world, according to a CNN tally.

But that relationship quickly soured once the death toll and jobless rate began to soar. The coronavirus has now claimed more than 95,000 lives and infected nearly 1.6 million people; close to 40 million Americans are now unemployed.

In recent days, Trump has lashed out on Twitter that the "incompetence of China" led to "mass Worldwide killing." He even floated the idea that a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the first outbreak was reported, had accidentally unleashed the virus - an unsubstantiated theory that some of his own top medical experts have dismissed.

The president has also threatened economic retaliation against Beijing and the withdrawal of U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, which Trump and his allies see as complicit in failing to warn the international community about the pandemic.

Gallery by photo services

Republicans candidates and lawmakers are taking their cues from Trump.

Jim Bognet, a former Trump administration official who's running in the GOP primary to take on Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), is running ads vowing to "make China pay - for the lies they told, the jobs they stole, and the lives we've lost."

The pro-Trump super PAC America First Action is running $10 million worth of ads in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, attacking "Beijing Biden" in an effort to paint former Vice President Joe Biden as soft on China and its coronavirus response.

Biden swung back at Trump with an anti-China ad of his own, arguing Trump "rolled over for the Chinese" and "let in 40,000 from China into America" during the pandemic. Asian American groups, typically aligned with Biden, condemned the ad as racist for failing to distinguish between Chinese people and the Chinese communist government.

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans have launched a partisan committee charged with investigating what Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has called the Chinese Communist Party's coronavirus "cover-up" and "propaganda campaign."

And GOP lawmakers have proposed a plethora of bills targeting China. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a member of the China task force, authored legislation that would make it harder for the Chinese government to invest in U.S. companies crippled by the pandemic. Another bill, by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), would green light a series of retaliatory measures against Beijing, including freezing assets, imposing sanctions and travel restrictions and requiring China to compensate Americans for COVID-19 losses.

In recent days, congressional Republicans have been repeating this refrain -- the United States is engaged in a new "cold war" with China -- in a bid to rally Americans behind the president.

"They're in for world domination. ... Understand you have an enemy. They're an adversary. It's called Communist China," Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "They intentionally didn't tell us about the coronavirus. It was intentional. ... You can see it was intentional."

While Democrats launched a bipartisan committee to oversee trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid, they have rebuffed invitations to join the GOP's China panel. That's given Republican leaders an opening.

"For whatever reason, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi doesn't want to confront China, and it's a major weakness," Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a phone interview. "Speaker Pelosi has turned a blind eye towards [China]. ... I don't know why they are covering for the Chinese Communist Party but they are."

U.S-China relations were further complicated this past week when Beijing said it would deploy sweeping new security powers that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned would be the "death knell" for political freedoms in Hong Kong.

The GOP's China-bashing comes as a growing number of Americans view the global economic powerhouse as a hostile threat to the U.S. Thirty-one percent of Americans said China is "the enemy," up 11 percentage points since January, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll. Only 23 percent of Americans see China as an ally or friend, down 9 points during that same period.

"Americans are increasingly suspicious and distrustful of China. This might be an effective tactic to unite the country and deflect attention from some of the strange and irresponsible comments the president has made in the context of the COVID crisis," said former GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who lost his diverse, Miami-area swing district in the 2018 midterms that handed Democrats control of the House.

"The president's campaign will do everything possible to make it about China, immigration, and Joe Biden's shortcomings," Curbelo said, "but that is unlikely to change the fundamental nature of a contest featuring a controversial incumbent."

Indeed, recent polls have shown Trump's approval numbers are sliding, particularly when it comes to his handling of the deadly pandemic. A Fox News poll sounded alarm bells in the Trump campaign by showing that 46 percent of voters said they trusted Biden to handle the pandemic, compared with 37 percent who trusted Trump. Asked who they would vote for today, 48 percent said Biden, while 40 percent said Trump.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders are also seizing on a new study by Columbia University that says Trump's initial reluctance to take COVID-19 seriously cost tens of thousands of lives.

As for the GOP's anti-China rhetoric, Democrats say it is outright "racist," arguing that Trump is only trying to distract voters from his own failure to avert a health and economic crisis under his watch.

"There's no question that there are real issues about China's transparency ... [but] the president from the very early days of this pandemic attempted to minimize the seriousness of it, suggested to the American people the coronavirus would go away miraculously on its own, that once the warm weather came it would just disappear, that it was nothing more than a hoax by the Democrats intending to undermine his leadership and his presidency," said Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, who heads the Democrats' policy and communications operation.

"He squandered six or more weeks of valuable time that he should have been preparing," Cicilline added. "This is part of a pattern where the president is trying to assign responsibility to somebody, some organization, some person, some country, to really distract from his own failures."

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

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