Eager to blame China, Team Trump leans on intelligence agencies

When Team Trump starts with a provocative conclusion, and then seeks evidence intended to bolster that conclusion, trouble soon follows.
Image: Trump meets Xi at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan
President Donald Trump meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan on June 29, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file
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By Steve Benen

NBC News reported this week that the White House has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to examine whether China and the World Health Organization "initially hid what they knew about the emerging coronavirus pandemic." The order reportedly went out to the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The New York Times had a related report yesterday, adding that senior Trump administration officials have pressed the intelligence community "to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak." The article added:

Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.

Those concerns are well grounded. Trump and his team haven't exactly been subtle in their recent efforts to hold China responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. What's more, the president has more than once publicly lashed out at intelligence agencies and professionals who've dared to tell him what he didn't want to hear, and repeatedly replaced high-ranking intelligence community officials he's deemed politically unsatisfactory.

It's against this backdrop that Team Trump is, in effect, going to spy agencies with a request: The president wants to blame the lab in Wuhan; see what you can do.

Some intelligence analysts are "concerned"? Well, yes, of course they are. The Bush/Cheney era -- featuring a White House pressing agencies for information intended to justify predetermined decisions -- hasn't faded from view, and Trump has embraced tactics similar to his Republican predecessor.

This is not to say there's no value in investigating the origins of the pandemic and the prospect of dishonesty from Beijing. These appear to be lines of inquiry with merit.

But when Team Trump starts with a provocative conclusion, and then seeks evidence intended to bolster that conclusion, trouble soon follows.

What kind of trouble? As it happens, the Washington Post reported yesterday that senior administration are exploring the possibility of "punishing or demanding financial compensation from China for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic." The article added:

Senior officials across multiple government agencies are expected to meet Thursday to begin mapping out a strategy for seeking retaliatory measures against China.... Officials in American intelligence agencies are also involved in the effort. President Trump has fumed to aides and others in recent days about China, blaming the country for withholding information about the virus, and has discussed enacting dramatic measures that would probably lead to retaliation by Beijing, these people said.

Watch this space.