How Trump let himself get played by China over the coronavirus crisis
Trump said he was ready for a "historic" deal with China as the leaders kicked off their meeting and Xi told him "dialogue" was better than confrontation AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Since Donald Trump thinks more like a poorly informed pundit than like a president, he often speaks about his relationships with other countries in terms of how well he gets along personally with other world leaders. This reveals a naive, simplistic understanding of international relations, but it makes for easy punditry, and it clearly drives Trump's thinking on foreign affairs.

And when the coronavirus emerged as an international threat in January, it seems this sophomoric tendency blunted his understanding of the situation. Now, Trump and his allies are on the attack against China, where the first outbreak was detected and where it was apparently covered up. Many Republicans argue China bears the bulk of the responsibility for the cataclysm the virus has wrought in the United States and across the world. They've extended this criticism to much of the media, charging that those who criticize Trump's response to the outbreak may be in league with Chinese propaganda efforts.

But a quick look at recent history shows that it was Trump who was a willing dupe for the authoritarian rulers of China.

As the Washington Post documented in its phenomenal account of the 70 days it took for Trump to grapple with the threat, China was evasive and obfuscatory about the emerging pathogen.

The U.S. government first learned about the novel coronavirus on Dec. 31, the Post reported, and on Jan. 3, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield spoke with a Chinese official about the illness. From there, though, things got rocky. The Post explained:

On Jan. 6, Redfield sent a letter to the Chinese offering to send help, including a team of CDC scientists. China rebuffed the offer for weeks, turning away assistance and depriving U.S. authorities of an early chance to get a sample of the virus, critical for developing diagnostic tests and any potential vaccine.

China impeded the U.S. response in other ways, including by withholding accurate information about the outbreak. Beijing had a long track record of downplaying illnesses that emerged within its borders, an impulse that U.S. officials attribute to a desire by the country’s leaders to avoid embarrassment and accountability with China’s 1.3 billion people and other countries that find themselves in the pathogen’s path.

China stuck to this costly script in the case of the coronavirus, reporting Jan. 14 that it had seen “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” U.S. officials treated the claim with skepticism that intensified when the first case surfaced outside China with a reported infection in Thailand.

Trump might have really been able to help here, if he had been in the loop. He could have applied pressure that no one else in the administration could wield to get China to let in U.S. scientists early. It could have given the United States a head start on fighting the outbreak that would engulf the country.

But the Post said Trump was only first "substantially briefed" on the issue on Jan. 18 in a call with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Then, on Jan. 21, the first person on American soil was diagnosed with the infection.

On Jan. 22, Trump made his first public comment about the matter to CNBC: "We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine."

The same day, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying that the authoritarian ruler "loves his country":

On Jan. 23, China put Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began, under lockdown. The Post reported:

“That was like, whoa,” said a senior U.S. official involved in White House meetings on the crisis. “That was when the Richter scale hit 8.”

And China still wasn't being helpful:

The Chinese were still refusing to share the viral samples they had collected and were using to develop their own tests. In frustration, U.S. officials looked for other possible routes.

A biocontainment lab at the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston had a research partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

[HHS Assistant Secretary Robert] Kadlec, who knew the Galveston lab director, hoped scientists could arrange a transaction on their own without government interference. At first, the lab in Wuhan agreed, but officials in Beijing intervened Jan. 24 and blocked any lab-to-lab transfer.

But that same day, despite concern already festering within the administration that China wasn't being honest, Trump praised the government for its work and transparency in fighting the virus:

The Post reported that there's "no indication that officials sought to escalate the matter or enlist Trump to intervene" against China's intransigence But this is no defense of Trump's actions. It instead indicates that he merely assumed China was being transparent without having any idea what was going on within his administration. He had been so lulled into a false sense of security that he apparently didn't even bother to check.

On Jan. 31, Trump pushed to restrict travel from foreigners who had been to China. Trump has frequently pounded his chest about the policy in the time since, but as the New York Times reported, it was much less significant than he suggests:

Since Chinese officials disclosed the outbreak of a mysterious pneumonialike illness to international health officials on New Year’s Eve, at least 430,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after President Trump imposed restrictions on such travel, according to an analysis of data collected in both countries.

The bulk of the passengers, who were of multiple nationalities, arrived in January, at airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Newark and Detroit. Thousands of them flew directly from Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, as American public health officials were only beginning to assess the risks to the United States.

Flights continued this past week, the data show, with passengers traveling from Beijing to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, under rules that exempt Americans and some others from the clampdown that took effect on Feb. 2. In all, 279 flights from China have arrived in the United States since then, and screening procedures have been uneven, interviews show. noted:

Trump said the travel restrictions “saved a lot of lives” and reduced U.S. COVID-19 cases to “a very small number.” But experts say there isn’t enough data to make that determination. A study in the journal Science found the various travel limitations across the globe initially helped to slow the spread, but the number of cases worldwide rose anyway because the virus had already begun traveling undetected internationally.

And since the ban was in place, Trump continued to praise the Chinese regime.

On Fed. 4, Trump said in his State of the Union:

We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.

On Feb. 7, Trump tweeted:

And even as recently as March 27, when many of his allies had signaled that they intend to blame China for the coronavirus chaos, Trump praised Xi yet again:

Many of Trump's defenders would like to cast the Chinese in the role of the enemy. There's some good reason for this, even if the objective is a cynical ploy to shield Trump from accountability. And sometimes Trump plays along with this narrative. But one of the defining features of his presidency has been his fondness for authoritarian rulers. And even despite the clear faults and lies of the Chinese regime, Trump can't shake his admiration for Xi. It clearly led him astray, and at least in the view of his allies, it's against his own interest. But for the love of dictators, Trump just can't stay mad at China.