Donald Trump claimed on Thursday he has seen evidence that the coronavirus originated from a medical laboratory in the Wuhan province in China, and threatened to slap new tariffs on the Asian economic power.
The president this week has ramped up his criticism of Beijing after spending several weeks only suggesting Chinese leaders knew the novel virus had gone public in their country. He also on Thursday questioned why China allowed people to leave and travel around the globe when they knew some likely had contracted Covid-19.
During an event on seniors that turned into a press conference, the president was asked: “Have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?”
He replied: “Yes, I have. And I think the WHO (World Health Organisation) should be ashamed of themselves.”
Asked if he is suggesting China intentionally allowed the virus to spread, which could be considered a hostile act, Mr Trump would not rule out that he is close to such a conclusion.
“We’re going to see where it is. We’re going to see where it comes from,” he said.
Some former intelligence officials instantly pushed back.
“Whether the virus originated in a market or accidentally escaped a lab would have had no bearing on the warnings Trump received – and ignored – nor on the preparatory steps he chose not to take,” Ned Price, a former CIA and Obama White House official, tweeted as Mr Trump was still speaking in the East Room. “This is all about manipulating intelligence for political ends.”
Downing Street tried to sidestep the controversy, meanwhile. Asked about President Trump’s claims a No 10 spokesman said: “There are clearly questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of the virus … (and) this work will need to be done with all our international partners.”
The Trump administration has launched an intelligence community probe seeking information on what Chinese officials knew and when – and what the World Health Organisation knew. His administration also wants to know if both entities covered up what they did know.
Asked directly if he has seen evidence that the virus originated at a virology clinic in Wuhan, the president replied: “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”
But he promised his administration will release conclusions from their investigation.
Earlier in the day, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement saying US intel officials have concluded the disease is not man-made.
“The entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the COVID-19 virus, which originated in China. The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the DNI statement said.
Notably, the director’s office indicated the statement was produced via an unanimous finding of all 16 American intelligence agencies, which can be rare.
But in another odd scene, Mr Trump did not appear to know what was the acronym “DNI,” nor give much credence to the statement, saying only: “I haven’t seen the statement.”
Throughout his tenure, Mr Trump has dismissed warnings and findings from his intelligence services, with Democrats alleging he ignored repeated intel community warnings in January and February about the coming Covid-19 virus and its potentially deadly spread inside the United States.
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