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Tom Cotton's veiled threats really aren't helping

Referring to the coronavirus, Tom Cotton said that Americans will "hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world." It was an unsettling vow.
Image: Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting with fellow Republicans in Washington on Nov. 27, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Like many members of Congress, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) announced yesterday that he's closing his Washington, D.C., office because of the coronavirus outbreak. But as part of a larger statement on the decision, the Arkansas Republican concluded:

"I have every confidence America will once again marshal the resolve, toughness, and genius of our people to overcome the serious threat to our health and well-being posed by the Wuhan coronavirus. We will emerge stronger from this challenge, we will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world, and we will prosper in the new day."

The fact that Cotton repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as "the Wuhan coronavirus" was not an accident. The GOP senator started floating a conspiracy theory about China and the virus last month, and many on the right have effectively tried to rebrand the virus as a way to blame China for the crisis.

But it was that other line -- "we will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world" -- that stood in unsettling ways.

It's also deeply unproductive. Politico reported this morning that the "escalating drumbeat against China is worrying some public health experts, who say the attempts to blame Beijing for the coronavirus outbreak could harm efforts to combat the spreading contagion, while winning praise from others. And it's come amid conspiracy theories and counteraccusations from Chinese officials, some of whom are alleging the virus's true origins lie outside China, in what U.S. officials say is a malicious effort to shift blame."

Nevertheless, Donald Trump seems increasingly eager to toe this line: in his Oval Office address this week, the president mentioned China five times in roughly 11 minutes, including the first sentence, which emphasized that the outbreak "started in China."

I take some comfort in the fact that Trump's speech, as unfortunate as it was, made no mention of "holding accountable those who inflicted" the virus on the world.