WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials decided in the spring of 2020 to strongly imply that COVID-19 came from a Chinese lab, even though intelligence officials investigating the pandemic’s origins did not have conclusive evidence supporting that hypothesis.
The messaging campaign began as a concerted effort to push back against China, which was attempting to blame the United States for the spread of the virus. In documents and cables newlyobtained by POLITICO, officials shared talking points emphasizing that even Beijing’s own communications acknowledged the outbreak began in China’s Wuhan Province.
But some officials at the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department urged the U.S. to go further. They wanted to blame China for covering up the pandemic’s origins and to allege that it came from a research facility in Wuhan that specialized in the study of dangerous bat pathogens — a move they described as going on the diplomatic offensive. The goal, officials said, was in part to pressure China to allow the U.S. and the international community access to Wuhan to investigate.
On several occasions, former President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embraced the controversial lab-leak theory in public remarks, going well beyond the official talking points hashed out between agencies.
At a press conference on April 30, 2020, Trump said the administration had evidence showing COVID-19 came from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, although he declined to provide specifics. “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that,” Trump said.
Days later, on May 3, Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week” that there was “enormous evidence” that COVID-19 came from the lab.
Five former Trump administration officials — including three who were directly involved in the administration’s origins probe — said the evidence the government had gathered did not conclusively support those claims. At that point, the officials had reviewed and obtained documents, reports, and other intelligence that suggested the virus might have originated in the Wuhan lab but they could not prove it. Those officials also said they were still considering evidence supporting a natural origin at the time Trump and Pompeo made their statements claiming a lab leak,and that ultimately they never found a smoking gun for either a lab or natural origin.
“I really wasn’t sure exactly what [evidence] they were talking about,” one former senior national security official said of Trump and Pompeo. “We were just trying to keep our heads down and do the work and look at the evidence as it came.”
The descriptions of the Trump administration’s internal conversations about the virus’ origin in spring 2020, including theNSC-led campaign described in the cables and documents, highlight the extent to which top officials pushed the lab-leak theory despite a lack of consensus among those charged with investigating the issue. Senior officials disagreed on the weight and meaning of the evidence they reviewed, particularly the circumstantial evidence for the lab-leak theory.
Yet the group of officials inside the White House, National Security Council and State Department determined at the time that the U.S. had gathered enough circumstantial evidence to point to the lab as the origin of the virusin public statements, regardless of the inconclusive state of the investigation.
“The prevailing assumption was that [the virus] accidentally escaped a lab in Wuhan,” a former Trump official with knowledge of the messaging campaign said. “Part of it too is testing your theory, especially if you’re confident in it … to see how China reacts to it.”
Two senior State Department officials who worked under the Trump administration said Pompeo’s remarks went beyond the normal administration talking points and prompted questions from allied countries about what led the secretary to conclude the virus originated in the lab.
Pompeo’s comments stoked confusion elsewhere in the administration among some officials investigating COVID-19’s origins. Multiple NSC and State Department officials said they did not review what they viewed as compelling — albeit not conclusive — reports and evidence supporting the lab leak theory until after Pompeo’s ABC comments.
In response to inquiries for this story, Pompeo told POLITICO in a statement: “We weren’t cherry picking the evidence. We were reading all of the intelligence. And the world now knows that our judgments were supported by an enormous amount of evidence that continues to grow.”
The search for evidence
During the early days of COVID-19, the Trump administration focused on implementing prevention measures to ensure the U.S. was prepared to contain the virus from spreading inside the country’s borders. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with the White House, worked to implement travel restrictions and banned all flights originating from China. A White House task force, then led by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in coordination with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, worked with senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top officials to lay the groundwork for procuring life-saving medical supplies and personal protective equipment.
“Our focus was on saving American lives,” one former senior health official involved in the federal government’s COVID-19 response said. “Nothing else mattered. While we looked to China for information about their cases and their treatments, we didn’t look into the origin question, at least not intensively, right out of the gate.”
But for multiple senior White House and national security officials, the question of where the virus originated was equally important, particularly because it could give the U.S. an edge over Beijing on the world stage. Those officials began to raise questions internally within the administration in January and February about how thevirus came to be and pressed for the administration to pursue an intensive investigation into the matter.
The pressure to investigate increased as China hawks on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), began to speak publicly about China’s handling of COVID-19 and the possibility that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. At the time, Cotton speculated that the virus had come from a lab in Wuhan that “works with the world’s most deadly pathogens.” “To include, yes, coronavirus,” Cotton said in a January 30, 2020 tweet.
Cotton was so enamored of the lab-leak theory that on Jan. 31, 2020, during the first impeachment trial of President Trump, he stepped away from his seat on the Senate floor to call then-Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger to urge him to push the administration to look into thepossibility more vigorously, according to a former White House official familiar with the call.
“Cotton felt like he was getting stonewalled” by the intelligence community, said the former official.
Other senior White House and national security officials, including Peter Navarro, Pompeo, Pottinger and Miles Yu, the principal China policy adviser to Pompeo, pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a likely possibility for where the virus originated.
“As soon as I saw the smoke coming out of the crematorium in Wuhan my radar went up,” said Navarro, an economist by training who did not work directly on the administration’s investigations into the origins question. “I predicted China would create a global pandemic. I was dead on. I was able to do that because of my expertise and by just looking at the chessboard. Of course it came from the lab.”
But at the time, top scientists and health officials such as CDC Director Robert Redfield and Anthony Fauci, both of whom were advising the White House coronavirus task force, said the evidence they viewed suggested the virus originated in nature before being passed on to humans. At least two other coronaviruses — those that cause SARS and MERS — have jumped from animals to humans over the past two decades.
“For many many weeks we heard from the top docs about wet markets and we had lots of discussions about wet markets and they, at least in this setting, would not talk about the lab leak even though others had brought it up, it was completely dismissed,” said a former Trump White House official.
In February 2020, 27 scientists penned an open letter in The Lancet saying “scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent … SARS-CoV-2, and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the scientists wrote.
“We were all in agreement that the virology lab bore consideration, and we were shocked … when supposed experts offhand in February in the Lancet article just completely dismissed that this could have in any way come from a lab,” recalled David Stilwell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs.“That was ludicrous, so that’s when we began to worry that the science world was not playing above board.”
As the domestic response ramped up and the administration began to focus more heavily on COVID-19 testing and lockdowns, various offices inside the State Department, NSC and intelligence agencies took on the origins investigation. While they often met to brief senior officials on their progress, their investigations stayed separate.
Several former national security and White House officials said they felt the circumstantial evidence they gathered in the spring of 2020 pushed them to believe the virus hadoriginated in the lab.
“Just as a matter of common sense, the CCP destroyed virus samples, they only let the WHO investigation into the laboratory for three and a half hours, they bleached the site of the wet market, they didn’t let Taiwan into the World Health Assembly, not to mention that this lab was so close to the center of the outbreak,” one former senior State Department official said. “To me, I just thought right away, this came from the lab.”
Other former senior officials told POLITICO the evidence they reviewed that purported to support the lab leak theory only indicated a leak was plausible but not a certainty. Another group of officials, including national security and top health officials, said those reports relied too heavily on open source material.
“We said, ‘Let’s just start thinking about how this impacts the next [pandemic]. We’re just going to see where the evidence leads us,’” said Anthony Ruggiero, the former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense at the NSC. “Part of the challenge for us was keeping as much of an open mind as possible. We didn’t give weight to one piece of information over another.” Ruggiero’s team at the NSC led one of the administration’s investigations into where the virus originated. The State Department and intelligence agencies carried out their own, separate probes.
“It’s entirely plausible this came from a lab, and it’s also entirely plausible it came from nature. As an intel analyst, you look at a whole set of coincidences and you start to wonder if they’re really coincidences. A lab working on this very issue as a locus for an outbreak — that’s a heck of a coincidence,” said Emily Harding, a former CIA analyst who was deputy staff director for the Senate intelligence committee last year.
The messaging campaign
As officials deliberated about the veracity and completeness of the evidence, there was general agreement across the interagency group that the origin question needed further evaluation before the administration made a public determination. Two former national security officials involved in the origins probe said they were particularly concerned about speaking publicly about the issue in the spring of 2020 because the U.S. was still trying to convince China to work with the international community on an investigation.
That spring, the NSC, in coordination with State, crafted a messaging campaign that pushed top U.S. officials to allege publicly that Beijing was responsible for the virus spreading across the globe and that the Chinese withheld vital COVID-19 data that prevented the world from preparing for the virus’ spread.
In cables and documents obtained by POLITICO, U.S. talking points noted the virus originated in Wuhan but did not specifically mention the lab or the potential that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The State Department pulled on the NSC messaging in multiple cables from March, April and May 2020, saying repeatedly that the “the coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019, or earlier” and attributed it to “the PRC government’s own accounts.”
“The CCP must take responsibility for its actions, or the Chinese people and the world won’t be safe the next time a virus starts in China,” a March 18, 2020 State Department cable said. “Saving lives is more important than saving face.”
Officials also flagged Chinese officials’ comments about COVID-19 origins. In one cable from April 17, 2020, officials noted Beijing representatives claiming there was “no evidence” to suggest the virus originated in China and that “imported cases” were responsible for the proliferation of infections.
“This is a period when China was beginning to propagate conspiracy theories about Fort Detrick and you had the Wolf Warrior diplomats going on about how some U.S. athlete to the Paralympic Games had spread it and it was cooked up at Fort Detrick,” said a former Trump administration official. “We were seeing partners, particularly developing [country] partners, actually were being swayed by the Chinese propaganda and outright lies so it was important to have a pushback.”
The U.S. countered Beijing’s propaganda by calling it a “disinformation campaign effort that “tried to shift the responsibility of this pandemic to others,” one Pentagon briefing document from April 2020 said.
But a small group inside the White House, State Department and NSC pushed Pompeo and Trump to go even further than the pointers laid out in the messaging campaign. Officials believed, even without conclusive evidence, that the virus originated in the lab and that the U.S. should go on the offensive, attacking Beijing for its handling of COVID-19 by talking about the lab and the evidence that supported the leak hypothesis, according to two individuals with direct knowledge of those conversations.
The U.S. messaging campaign coincided with a series of anti-China speeches that National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI director Chris Wray gave in the summer.
The lab-leak hypothesis gained more steam on April 14 when Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported that State Department cables two years before had warned about safety issues at the Wuhan lab. Rogin called up officials at the State Department as he was working on the story to ask for the cables.
“I even went to Pompeo’s senior staff directly to try to convince them to hand them over,” Rogin wrote in his recent book, “Chaos Under Heaven.” “Pompeo thought about it but refused. He needed to keep up the veneer of good relations with China, and these revelations would make that job more difficult.” A former State Department official said that Pompeo, being a former CIA director, was unwilling to give them to him directly because he was careful about safeguarding classified information.
Asked about Rogin’s assertion, a Pompeo spokesperson said in a statement: “Your story is fundamentally incorrect. The secretary was working every day to get out information to the American public so they knew what he knew about China’s malfeasant behavior.” Rogin said he stood by thereporting in his column and book.
That same month, Yu told POLITICO, he sent Pompeo a report based on open-sourced information he began gathering in January of 2020 that pointed to the lab as the likely origin of COVID-19.
Besides Pottinger, Yu said he was the only senior Trump official on the China policy front who could read Chinese documents fluently and saw the robust discussion by Chinese citizens debating the cause of coronavirus online until the Chinese government shut it down.
“I was able to catch that wave of basically an information explosion and basically summarize the very damning circumstantial evidence among Chinese bloggers, scientists and journalists themselves,” he said.
Later in April, in response to a question from a reporter about whether he had seen any evidence that gave him a high degree of confidence the virus originated in the Wuhan lab, Trump said: “Yes, I have.” He declined to say what evidence pointed to the lab as the origin, however.
Days later, Pompeo, drawing on the administration’s China COVID-19 messaging talking points and Yu’s report, blamed Beijing for covering up information about the virus and said there was “enormous evidence” that pointed to the fact that the virus came from the lab. His statement came at a time when officials investigating the origins question were reviewing evidence, including scientific reports, that the virus could have originated in nature.
It wasn’t until later that national security officials said they reviewed new evidence that compelled them to believe that the lab leak theory was plausible and even likely.
One of those reports, circulated internally in May 2020 by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s intelligence unit, said it pulled on genomic analyses of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to determine that it was plausible that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan lab, according to two individuals familiar with the classified report.
Another report, published in the scientific journal Cell by Chinese and American researchers made its way to Ruggiero’s NSC directorate. The authors had studied mice with humanized lungs and tracked how they responded to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although the special mice were created years before the virus emerged, the studyled officials on Ruggiero’s team to determine that the virus could have originated in the lab in 2019.
Over the course of 2020, the Trump administration gathered evidence that showed researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in November 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness,” according to a State Department fact sheet published in January 2020 just before the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Months later, on May 23, 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported more details about that incident, including that there were three researchers — all of whom sought medical care from a hospital.
But those reports described the researchers’ symptoms as “consistent with” COVID-19 and other well-known viruses such as the flu. Nor is it clear whether the scientists worked with bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan institute, a large research facility in a city bigger than New York. Many studies have suggested that COVID was already circulating in Wuhan by November 2019, so it’s possible the scientists could have been infected outside of work.
The Biden probe
Former Trump officials have highlighted and elevated some of the information pointing to the leak theory in recent weeks as they press the Biden administration to launch a deeper investigation into the pandemic’s beginnings.
Last month, President Biden ordered the intelligence community to redouble its efforts in studying the origins questions. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration has obtained new intelligence from China or elsewhere that will help officials come to a clearer determination than the Trump administration did.
Harding, the former CIA analyst, said she found it concerning that the intelligence probe was announced publicly because it could put sources and methods at risk.
“The IC really likes to operate in the shadows and if the president announces that he’s tasked a paper then the next thing that happens is the IC goes back out and pings all of its sources and you generally don’t want to alert the fact that you’re doing that,” she said.
And with China refusing to share vital lab data with the U.S., the Biden officials face a similar challenge as the Trump officials who kick-started the probe in 2020. They will have to rely in part on circumstantial evidence that could prevent them from reaching a conclusion on whether the virus originated in the Wuhan lab.
“It seems unlikely that we will get a definitive answer on COVID’s origins in 90 days, or maybe ever. My guess is that if a lab leak did occur, the likelihood of gaining access to definitive evidence would be near zero. This would be among the most closely protected secrets in the history of the Communist Party,” said Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to press to get answers, but we should be realistic about the likelihood that we’ll have definitive proof in 90 days.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.
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