“China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates your efforts and transparency. Everything will be fine, ”Trump tweeted on January 24, four days after the first case in the United States was confirmed. “In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi!” Other presidential tweets in early February praised Xi for his “strong” and “sharp” response.
The tweets were counterproductive, two current and one previous official said, noting that China had yet to provide key information on the origin of the virus or allow US health officials to enter the country; Negotiations would continue until February.
“Getting the president to applaud China for transparency while trying to make China truly transparent” weakened the position of the United States, said the official, who has been involved in the coronavirus response. It was also a missed opportunity to push China into a long-running battle for access to the country’s public health information, which dates back to previous outbreaks, the official added.
The White House declined to comment on Trump’s first dealings with China on the outbreak, or his relationship with Xi, instead pointing to recent comments by senior officials contesting Bolton’s claims.
“What Bolton says about China is silly, because this president has been the toughest president over China of any American president,” trade adviser Peter Navarro said on CNN on Sunday.
Meanwhile, current and former officials said it remains unclear how much Trump’s public applause for China ultimately hindered the United States’ access to Chinese information during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Would a harder stance really have changed things?” asked a former administration official. “China is a [cluster of problems]. You never know if public shame is going to make you give things up or shut them up. “
But Bolton painted a vivid image of a president seeking favors from the Chinese president, telling Xi directly that China’s commitment to buy more soybeans and other agricultural products grown in the United States would help him win a second term.
Despite being out of the White House at the time, Bolton states in his memoirs that Trump took steps to restrict information in the United States about the virus “for fear of negatively affecting the elusive final trade deal with China, or for offending. to the ever-sensitive Xi. ” Restricting the information made no sense, given China’s role in concealing the origins and spread of the disease, Bolton argues.
When asked about Bolton’s claims about Trump and the coronavirus, a Bolton spokesman referred to his recent media interviews.
“I think we wasted a lot of time” due to Trump’s passive approach to getting China involved in the virus, Bolton told Martha Raddatz of ABC News earlier this month. “That is an example of how to make a policy out of pocket, without a systematic consideration of what needs to be done, despite being warned by the people in charge of making the warnings that is coming.”
Trump made it clear within the White House that he was concerned about antagonizing the Chinese in the early days of the response, influencing the administration’s overall policy. Some of Trump’s advisers were upset by the president’s “soft touch” on Xi and felt a more aggressive stance was warranted, The Washington Post reported in February.
China’s longtime hands said they understood Bolton’s concern that Trump was influenced by the status of the trade deal, which the president has sought to resolve before this fall’s elections.
“Many of us were not surprised by the trade deal disclosures in Bolton’s book because they were completely consistent with what the president had said publicly for months,” said Zack Cooper, who tracks the US-Chinese policy for the conservative American Enterprise. Institute. . “The president has made this public in recent weeks: He was trying to reach an agreement in January and he wanted to do nothing to damage the agreement.”
In other sections of the book, Bolton details examples of Trump hesitating to confront Xi and even asking China for help in his reelection campaign.
Quotations from Bolton’s new book have been circulating online, and within the administration, for days.
“Bolton raises good questions that Trump should answer,” said an official involved in the coronavirus response. “Why be so nice to Xi when all your deputies tell you what we need from him? That was the time to be the tough reality show guy. “
Since then, Trump has adopted a much more aggressive tone in China, blaming the country for unleashing the pandemic worldwide.