Coronavirus: Trump aide claims China guilty of cover-up akin to Chernobyl

Richard Luscombe in Miami and Martin Pengelly in New York
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The White House on Sunday accused China of a cover-up that will “go down in history along with Chernobyl”, ramping up efforts to deflect attention from a Covid-19 death toll in the US fast closing on 100,000.

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Robert O’Brien, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, made the claim on two political talk shows, saying Beijing gave “false information” to the World Health Organization (WHO) at the start of the year and alleging that stonewalling of an investigation into the origins of the pandemic has cost “many, many thousands of lives in America and around the world”.

On Saturday Mike Pence, the vice-president, told Breitbart News that China had “let the world down” and insisted the WHO was “their willing partner in withholding from the US and wider world vital information about the coronavirus”.

The Trump administration has become increasingly keen to move attention away from its handling of the pandemic, which has seen more deaths in the US than any other nation and a broken economy including soaring unemployment that another senior adviser told CNN would still be “in double digits” by the 3 November presidential election.

O’Brien dampened speculation that the administration might seek to delay that election. But as China warned that Washington’s “lies” were “pushing our two countries to the brink of a new cold war”, he went firmly on the attack.

Someday they’re going to do an HBO show like they did with Chernobyl

Robert O'Brien

Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation, he claimed Beijing knew of the looming crisis as early as November but chose to keep it quiet.

“We don’t know who in the Chinese government did it, but it doesn’t matter if it was the local Chinese government or the Communist party of China,” he said.

“Look, this was a virus that was unleashed by China. There was a cover up that someday they’re going to do an HBO show like they did with Chernobyl,” he added, likening the pandemic to the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine which Soviet authorities initially tried to hide.

O’Brien repeated the claim on NBC’s Meet the Press, accusing China of a “cover-up that … is going to go down in history along with Chernobyl”.

Most scientists say the pathogen that has infected 5.3 million people and killed more than 342,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, was passed from bats to humans via an intermediary species probably sold at a wet market in Wuhan, China, last year.

But Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior US figures have repeatedly said they suspect the coronavirus was somehow released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a claim China has strenuously denied.

O’Brien claimed China’s alleged skulduggery was continuing.

“There’s a chance, and it’s been reported, that the Chinese have been engaged in espionage to try and find the research and the technologies that we’re working on both for a vaccine and a therapy,” he told CBS.

“So look, they’ve got a many, many year history of stealing American intellectual property and knocking off American technology. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did that with vaccines.”

O’Brien also said the US would soon implement restrictions on travelers from Brazil.

After spending much of Saturday playing golf at his resort in Virginia, Trump had no public engagements on Sunday. He duly went back to Trump National in Sterling.

On Twitter the president, who criticized Barack Obama in 2014 for golfing when a second case of Ebola was confirmed in the US, preferred to concentrate on topics other than the pandemic.

Trump feuded with his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions; attacked Joe Biden, his likely opponent in November; retweeted abusive messages about female opponents; repeated unsubstantiated allegations that mail-in ballots lead to rigged elections; and repeated baseless insinuations that an MSNBC host might have murdered an aide.

He also tweeted falsely that coronavirus “cases, numbers and deaths are going down all over the Country!”

On Saturday, North Carolina reported its highest one-day spike in cases. Official statistics continue to show hotspots in other places including Washington DC – where O’Brien said the administration still hopes to hold an in-person G7 summit in July – and Florida, where the Miami Herald reported that the rate of new cases was not slowing.

On Friday Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, encouraged the public to go outdoors over the Memorial Day weekend.

Donald Trump leaves the White House on Sunday. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

“We know being outside does help, we know the sun does help in killing the virus, but that doesn’t change the fact that people need to be responsible and maintain that distance,” she told Fox News Sunday, when presented with images of packed beaches and people in close proximity, not wearing masks.

“I was hoping to convey this very clear message to the American people,” she said, “… across the country there is a virus out there.”

Birx also said Trump himself did wear a mask when not able to maintain social distance. Trump was not pictured using a mask on his trips to play golf in Virginia.

On ABC’s This Week, Birx was asked if the nation would need an extended or second lockdown.

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“It’s difficult to tell and I really am data-driven, so I’m collecting data right now about whether governors and whether states and whether communities are able to open safely,” she said.

“All of this proactive testing needs to be in place and needs to continue to be in place because that will determine safely remaining open in the fall.”

One thing the Trump administration admits will not bounce back fully by fall is the US unemployment rate, which Kevin Hassett, a senior adviser, told CNN would still be in double figures by the time of the election.

“Unemployment will be something that moves back slower,” he said. “You’re going to be starting at a number in the 20s [per cent] and working your way down. And so, of course, you could still not be back to full employment by September or October.”