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Trump and Biden clash over China in dueling ads

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then-Vice President Joseph Biden during a 2013 visit to Beijing.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a 2013 visit to Beijing.
(Lintao Zhang / Pool Photo)

President Trump’s intensifying criticism of China isn’t just about deflecting blame during the coronavirus crisis — it’s opening up a new line of attack against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

With the U.S. death toll surpassing 35,000 on Friday and the nation’s economy in a record-shattering swoon, Trump’s reelection chances now rest heavily on his ability to successfully frame the choice voters will face in November as a referendum on China, according to the president’s campaign aides and allies.

For Trump, it’s an update of the unapologetic nationalism he ran on four years ago, when he played up dangers supposedly posed by Mexicans and illegal immigration, and cast opponents as weak and naive. For Biden, determined to avoid Hillary Clinton’s fate, it’s a political and cultural minefield to distance himself from China without demonizing it as he makes his final bid for the White House.

Unwilling to let Trump’s arguments go unanswered, Biden’s campaign battled back Friday with a spate of ads disputing his alleged support for China, and going on offense — blaming Trump for being too trusting of President Xi Jinping as the coronavirus spread.

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In a new video, Biden agrees that Chinese authorities were not honest about the early outbreak in Wuhan, and sought to cover up the contagion and the deaths. But Trump, he said, “is not doing enough about it.”

“The uncomfortable truth is that Donald Trump left America vulnerable and exposed to this pandemic,” Biden said. “He ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies and put his trust in China’s leaders instead.”

The super PAC backing President Trump has targeted $10 million in ads attacking Joe Biden in three key states.

American Bridge, a major Democratic super PAC, put $15 million behind a separate TV ad that slams Trump for trusting and praising China and for shipping medical supplies to China when they remained in short supply at home.

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With rallies and other physical campaigning on hold, the heated battle over China marked the first direct major engagement of the general election campaign.

The clash is playing out amid a pandemic that has put Trump in front of TV cameras at the White House every afternoon, and relegated Biden to remote TV and internet appearances from his home basement in Wilmington, Del.

Biden engaged after Trump’s campaign revved up political messaging focusing on the former vice president’s apparent ties to Beijing, in concert with efforts by the White House and its backers to blame China for the pandemic.

Internal research “shows that Joe Biden’s softness on China is a major vulnerability,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign.

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Biden, he said, “doesn’t view China as an economic competitor, he was critical of the president’s life-saving China travel restrictions, he has resisted holding China accountable for the virus outbreak, and his son Hunter entered business with a state-owned Chinese bank after he accompanied his then-vice president father on an Air Force 2 trip to Beijing.”

After weeks of referring to the COVID-19 outbreak as a "Chinese virus," President Trump in recent days has blamed Beijing for not sufficiently warning the U.S. about the outbreak in Wuhan in December and part of January.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As part of a $10-million ad buy in swing states, America First Action, the principal super PAC behind Trump’s reelection effort, this week broadcast spots juxtaposing old clips of Biden speaking favorably about China, with allegations that Beijing “stole American manufacturing and hoarded our emergency stockpile.”

“Now more than ever, America must stop China, and to stop China you have to stop Joe Biden,” the narrator intones.

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On Twitter, Trump allies have branded their likely general election opponent as "#BeijingBiden.”

“The Chinese Communist Party has infected the world, and crashed the global economy,” said Steve Cortes, a Trump supporter working with America First. The Chinese economy, the world’s second-largest, has also crashed due to the coronavirus, according to official data released Friday.

But Biden alleges in the video he released Friday that Trump has failed to confront Chinese leaders since the pandemic began, and that the president has left America ill-prepared to respond to the crisis.

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The Obama administration, Biden argues, initiated a program to receive early warnings for outbreaks and kept a strong Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presence in China to sound the alarm — both of which Trump dismantled.

“We had an American official stationed inside the Chinese disease control agency serving as our eyes and ears,” Biden says. “President Trump left that position vacant as the outbreak hit. And when the coronavirus started to spread, the CDC wanted to get into China to get information that could save American lives. China said no, and Donald Trump didn’t insist on access.”

Trump, Biden continues, instead praised Xi because “he was more worried about protecting his trade deal with China than he was about the virus that had already come to America.”

In the last month, Trump has bulldozed past questions at nightly briefings about supply shortages and the lack of U.S. testing, even as some hospitals in New York City were overrun and the death toll spiked. He has focused instead on China’s culpability.

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After weeks of referring to the COVID-19 outbreak as a “Chinese virus,” Trump in recent days has blamed Beijing for not sufficiently warning the U.S. about the outbreak in Wuhan in December and part of January.

“I was angry, because this should have been told to us,” Trump said Thursday. “It should have been told to us early. It should have been told to us a lot sooner. People knew it was happening and people didn’t want to talk about it.”

Trump barred visitors from China on Jan. 31, but did not declare a U.S. health emergency until March 13, six weeks after the Wuhan outbreak was public knowledge.

For months, Trump had credited Chinese President Xi for his response. Xi, Trump said on Feb. 23, was “working very hard. I think he’s doing a very good job.”

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On March 27, after the global economy had begun to crater, Trump offered more praise, tweeting that “China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”

This week, he said he was suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, alleging that the United Nations public health agency had shielded China from blame and was slow to react to the outbreak.

Claims of a cover-up spread after Fox News, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence sources, suggested that the coronavirus may have accidentally escaped from a Chinese research laboratory, not a wet market in Wuhan as Beijing has said. No evidence indicates it is an engineered virus.

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Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo noted Friday that the official death toll in Wuhan had just jumped by 50% to 3,869.

“It’s very clear now that the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization didn’t put that information out into the international space as they’re required to do in a timely fashion,” he said on Fox Business. “And the result of that is that we now have this global pandemic.”

Chinese officials attributed the increase to people who died at home because hospitals were too full, mistaken reporting by medical staff, and other confusion at the height of the crisis. “As a result, belated, missed and mistaken reporting occurred,” Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reported.

The xenophobic strategy is an update on Trump’s 2016 campaign, when he played up dangers supposedly posed by Mexicans and portrayed himself as an unapologetic nationalist while denouncing his opponents as weak and naive.

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But some Biden backers believe voters will find Trump’s sequel less convincing than the original.

“What Trump has been trying to sell, is this idea the Chinese misled him [about the coronavirus]. But the most you could say is they misled him for two weeks,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. ambassador who is supporting Biden.

“I’m more worried about where the U.S.-China relationship is going,” Hill added. “I’m less worried that Trump can turn this into an ace card in the election.”


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