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Trump, Officials Escalate Allegation China Hid Virus Spread

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 3/21/2020 Jordan Fabian
Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo are posing for a picture: Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference on March 20. © Bloomberg Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference on March 20.

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration escalated its attacks on China over the coronavirus, as U.S. officials publicly alleged that Beijing concealed and minimized the spread of the disease within its borders until it was too late to stop a global outbreak.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called the disease the “Chinese virus” at a White House news conference on Friday, rejecting criticism from Beijing and within their own country that the term is offensive. Pompeo demanded the Chinese government release more data on the virus’s spread, saying lives could be at risk otherwise.

“This transparency, this real-time information sharing isn’t about political gains or retribution. It’s about keeping people safe,” Pompeo said at the White House.

Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that China defense officials did not respond to offers of U.S. assistance as early as January.

”If the Chinese government had been more transparent early on, we’re talking late fall, December at least, we would all -- all of us, all the nations of the world -- would have been able to get our arms around this and contain it in China where it began and prevent its propagation around the world,” Esper said on Fox News.

A set of National Security Council talking points obtained by Bloomberg News accuse China of a “cover-up” by hiding news of the outbreak from its own people and the world for weeks and calls the U.S. the “greatest humanitarians the world has ever known.”

The new, harsher U.S. assessment of the Chinese response to the virus represents a pivot, as just last month Trump praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s efforts. Trump has sought to shift blame for a growing American outbreak of the coronavirus -- now at more than 16,000 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University -- as the disease quickly reshapes the U.S. presidential campaign just months before the election.

Chinese officials expressed their surprise at the comments from Trump officials. Geng Shuang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said his country has been regularly notifying the U.S. of the developments for the outbreak since as early as Jan. 3. He also pointed to Trump’s earlier tweets on the communication with China.

“I wonder why the U.S. suddenly changed its tone and turned against us,” Geng said at a briefing Friday. “Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. attempt of blame-shifting will not help it to contain the disease at home or unite the international community in fighting the pandemic together.”

U.S. officials face increasing complaints from states, health-care providers and the general public that the country is unprepared for the outbreak to worsen, with shortages of everything from test kits to gloves and masks and hospital ventilators need to treat the severely ill.

The criticism of China risks escalating tensions with the country’s ruling Communist Party, which has without evidence accused the U.S. Army of creating the deadly virus. Trump has repeatedly mentioned the rumor at news conferences and has publicly denied it.

Pompeo said that China, along with Russia and Iran, are among countries spreading disinformation about the virus.

On Friday, Trump stated that the virus “came from China” but also attempted to lower tensions with Xi, with whom he sealed a trade agreement the U.S. president bills as one of the biggest economic accomplishments of his first term.

Xi “loves China” but also “respects the United States,” said Trump, who added, “I respect China greatly and I respect President Xi.”

But officials in his government appear to have adopted the president’s harsher rhetoric.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus accused the Chinese government of ordering coronavirus samples destroyed and silencing doctors in the Chinese city of Wuhan who attempted to raise alarms about the spread of the disease.

“@SpokespersonCHN is right: This is a timeline the world must absolutely scrutinize,” Ortagus wrote in a Friday morning tweet aimed at her Chinese counterpart.

(Updates with comments from China’s official in eighth and ninth paragraphs.)

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