Top Trump officials pushed the Covid-19 lab-leak theory. Investigators had doubts.

On several occasions, former President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo incorporated the controversial theory of the laboratory leak in public statements, going well beyond the official topics of conversation between authorities.

At a press conference on April 30, 2020, Trump said the government had evidence that Covid-19 came from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, despite refusing to provide details. “I can not tell you that. I can’t tell you that, ”said Trump.

Days later, on May 3, Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week” that there was “tremendous evidence” that Covid-19 came from the laboratory.

Five former Trump administration officials – including three who were directly involved in tracing the government’s origins – said the evidence gathered by the government does not support these claims conclusively. At that point, officials had checked and received documents, reports, and other information that suggested the virus might have come from the Wuhan laboratory, but they were unable to prove it. These officials also said that at the time Trump and Pompeo made their statements about a laboratory leak, they were still considering evidence of natural origin. and that in the end they never found a smoking weapon for a laboratory or natural origin.

“I wasn’t really sure what exactly? [evidence] they spoke, “a former senior national security official said of Trump and Pompeo. “We were just trying to keep our heads down and do the job and look at the evidence as it came.”

The descriptions of the Trump administration’s internal talks about the origin of the virus in the spring of 2020, including the The NSC-led campaign described in the dispatches and documents underscores the extent to which top officials have advanced the laboratory leak theory even though there was no consensus among those tasked with investigating the problem. Senior officials disagreed on the weight and importance of the evidence they reviewed, particularly the circumstantial evidence supporting the laboratory leak theory.

However, the group of officials within the White House, National Security Council and State Department determined at the time that the US had gathered enough evidence to point to the laboratory as the origin of the virus in public statements, regardless of the inconclusive state of the investigation.

“The prevailing assumption was that [the virus] accidentally escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, “said a former Trump official with knowledge of the messaging campaign. “Part of that is also testing your theory, especially if you are convinced of it … to see how China reacts to it.”

Two senior State Department officials working under the Trump administration said Pompeo’s remarks went beyond the administration’s normal discussion points and led to questions from the allied countries, leading the secretary to conclude that the virus came from the laboratory.

Pompeo’s comments have created confusion elsewhere in the administration for some officials investigating the origins of Covid-19. Several NSC and State Department officials said they did not review what they believed to be compelling – if inconclusive – reports and evidence supporting the laboratory leak theory only after Pompeo’s ABC comments.

In response to inquiries about this story, Pompeo said in a statement to POLITICO: “We have not sought the evidence. We read all of the intelligence. And the world now knows that our judgments have been backed by a tremendous amount of evidence that continues to grow. “

The search for evidence

In the early days of Covid-19, the Trump administration focused on implementing preventive measures to ensure the US was prepared to contain the spread of the virus within national borders. Homeland Security officials worked in coordination with the White House to implement travel restrictions and banned all flights from China. A White House task force, then led by the Department’s Minister of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, in coordination with Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, worked with senior adviser Jared Kushner and other senior officials to lay the foundations for obtaining life-saving measures, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

“Our focus was on saving American lives,” said a former senior health official who was involved in the federal government’s Covid-19 response. “Nothing else was important. While we were looking for information about their cases and their treatments in China, we did not deal directly with the question of origin, at least not intensively. “

But for several senior White House and national security officials, where the virus came from was just as important, especially as it could give the US an advantage over Beijing on the world stage. These officials began asking questions like that internally within the administration in January and February Virus emerged urging the administration to investigate the matter intensively.

Investigative pressure increased as China hawks on Capitol Hill, including Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Publicly discuss China’s handling of Covid-19 and the possibility that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology began to speak. At the time, Cotton speculated that the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan that “works with the world’s deadliest pathogens”. “To include the coronavirus,” Cotton said in a tweet on January 30, 2020.

Cotton was so excited about the Labor Leak Theory that on January 31, 2020, during President Trump’s first impeachment trial, he stepped down from his Senate seat to call then Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger to urge him Urge management to do the Possibility to be more energetic, according to a former White House official familiar with the call.

“Cotton felt like it was being walled in by the secret services,” said the former official.

Other senior White House and national security officials, including Peter Navarro, Pompeo, Pottinger and Miles Yu, Pompeo’s main political advisor on China, pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the likely possibility for the virus’s origin.

“As soon as I saw smoke rising from the Wuhan crematorium, my radar went up,” said Navarro, a trained economist who did not work directly on the government’s investigation into the origin issue. “I predicted that China would trigger a global pandemic. I was dead. I could do that because of my expertise and just looking at the chessboard. Of course it came from the laboratory. “

But at the time, top scientists and health officials like CDC Director Robert Redfield and Anthony Fauci, both of whom advised the White House’s coronavirus task force, said the evidence they saw suggested the virus came from nature before it was passed on to humans. At least two other coronaviruses – those that cause SARS and MERS – have moved from animals to humans in the past two decades.

“For many, many weeks we heard from the top docs about wet markets and we had a lot of discussions about wet markets and they, at least in this environment, didn’t want to talk about the lab leak even though others had brought it up, it was totally.” fired, “said a former Trump White House official.

As of February 2020, 27 scientists have written an open letter in The Lancet which says: “Scientists from several countries have published and analyzed” Genomes of the pathogen … SARS-CoV-2, and they mostly come to the conclusion that this coronavirus comes from wild animals. “” We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories that suggest that Covid-19 has no natural origin ” wrote the scientists.

“We all agreed that the virology lab was included, and we were shocked … when alleged experts in the Lancet article simply dismissed outright in February that this could have come from a lab in any way,” recalled David Stilwell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific. “That was ridiculous, so we started worrying that the science world wasn’t going overboard.”

As the domestic response increased and the administration shifted its focus to Covid-19 testing and bans, various offices within the State Department, NSC, and intelligence agencies took over the investigation into the origins. Although they met often to share their progress with senior officials, their investigations remained separate.

Several former national security and White House officials said they felt that the evidence they gathered in the spring of 2020 pushed them to believe the virus originated in the laboratory.

“Just using common sense, the CCP destroyed virus samples, they only let WHO tests in the lab for three and a half hours, they bleached the wet market area, they didn’t let Taiwan into the World Health Agency” rally, not to mention that this lab did so was close to the center of the outbreak, ”said a former senior foreign ministry official. “For me, I immediately thought it was coming from the laboratory.”

Other former senior officials told POLITICO that the evidence they reviewed, allegedly supporting the laboratory leak theory, only indicated that a leak was plausible but not certain. Another group of officials, including national security and health officials, said these reports rely too heavily on open source material.

“We said, ‘Let’s just start thinking about how this will affect the next one” [pandemic]. We’ll just see where the evidence leads us, ”said Anthony Ruggiero, the former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense at NSC. “Part of the challenge for us was to be as open as possible. We didn’t weight one piece of information over another. ”Ruggiero’s team at the NSC led one of the government’s investigations into the origin of the virus. The State Department and the Secret Services conducted their own separate investigations.

“It is entirely plausible that this came from a laboratory, and it is entirely plausible that it came from nature. As an Intel analyst, you look at a number of coincidences and begin to wonder whether they are really coincidences. A lab working on that very issue as an outbreak location – it’s a bloody coincidence, ”said Emily Harding, a former CIA analyst who was deputy chief of staff on the Senate Intelligence Committee last year.

The messaging campaign

When officials discussed the veracity and completeness of the evidence, there was general agreement within the inter-agency group that the origin issue needed further evaluation before the administration made a public decision. Two former national security officials involved in the origin investigation said they were particularly concerned about speaking publicly on the issue in spring 2020 as the U.S. was still trying to convince China to cooperate with the international community on an investigation .

This spring, the NSC, in coordination with the state, created a messaging campaign that got senior US officials to publicly claim that Beijing was responsible for spreading the virus around the world and that the Chinese were responsible for important Covid-19 Holding back data that was preventing the world from preparing for the virus to spread.

Cables and documents received from POLITICO on U.S. talking points indicated that the virus originated in Wuhan but did not specifically mention the laboratory or potential the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Pulling the NSC news on multiple cables from March, April and May 2020, the State Department repeatedly said that “the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China began in December 2019 or earlier” and wrote to “the PRC “To own government accounts.”

“The CCP must take responsibility for its actions, or the Chinese people and the world will not be safe the next time a virus breaks out in China,” a telegram from the State Department said on March 18, 2020. “Live for good saving is more important than saving face. “

Officials also flagged Chinese officials’ comments on the origins of Covid-19. On April 25, 2020, officials noted that Beijing officials claimed there was “no evidence” to suggest the virus originated in China and that “imported cases” were responsible for the spread of infection.

“This is a time when China started spreading conspiracy theories about Fort Detrick and you had spoken to the Wolf Warrior diplomats about how some US athletes at the Paralympic Games spread it and it was invented at Fort Detrick,” said a former Trump administration official. “We saw partners, especially the development [country] Partners, were actually influenced by Chinese propaganda and open lies, so it was important to have a pushback. “

The US countered Beijing’s propaganda by calling it a “disinformation campaign” that “sought to shift responsibility for this pandemic onto others,” according to a Pentagon briefing in April 2020.

But a small group within the White House, State Department and NSC urged Pompeo and Trump to go further than the pointers set out in the messaging campaign. Officials believed, even without conclusive evidence, that the virus originated in the laboratory and that the US should go on the offensive and attack Beijing for its handling of Covid-19, speaking about the laboratory and the evidence the leaked The hypothesis was supported by two people with direct knowledge of these conversations.

The US messaging campaign coincided with a series of anti-China speeches made by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray during the summer.

The laboratory leak hypothesis gained momentum on April 14th when Josh Rogin. from the Washington Post reported that State Department cables had warned of security problems in the Wuhan laboratory two years earlier. Rogin called State Department officials while he was working on the story to ask about the cables.

“I even went straight to Pompeo’s senior executives to convince them to hand them over,” wrote Rogin in his recently published book, “Chaos Under Heaven”. “Pompeo thought about it, but refused. He had to maintain the paintwork of good relations with China, and those revelations would make the job difficult. ”A former State Department official said Pompeo, a former CIA director, was unwilling to give them to him directly because he was careful about protecting classified information respected.

When asked about Rogin’s claim, a Pompeo spokesman said in a statement: “Your story is fundamentally wrong. The secretary worked every day to get information to the American public so they knew what he knew about China’s criminal behavior. ”Rogin said he was with the by Reporting in his column and book.

That same month, Yu told POLITICO, he sent Pompeo a report based on open source information it had collected in January 2020 that indicated the lab as the likely origin of Covid-19.

Yu said he was the only high-ranking Trump official in China politics besides Pottinger who could read Chinese documents fluently and saw the robust discussion of Chinese citizens about the cause of the coronavirus online until the Chinese government shut it down.

“I was able to capture this wave of information explosion and basically sum up the very damning evidence among Chinese bloggers, scientists and journalists myself,” he said.

Later in April, when a reporter asked if he had seen evidence that gives him a high level of confidence that the virus came from the Wuhan lab, Trump replied, “Yes, I did.” to say what evidence suggested the laboratory as the origin.

Days later, Pompeo, drawing on the government talking points on China Covid-19 and Yu’s report, Accused Beijing of covering up information about the virus, saying there was “tremendous evidence” suggesting the virus came from the laboratory. His statement came at a time when officials investigating the origin issue 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 had reviewed new evidence leading them to believe the laboratory leak theory was plausible and even likely.

One of those reports, circulated internally by the intelligence unit of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of the Department of Energy in May 2020, said it was using genomic analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to determine that it was plausible that Covid- 19 laboratory is from Wuhan, according to two people who are familiar with the secret report.

Another report, published by Chinese and American researchers in the journal Cell, went to Ruggiero’s NSC directorate. The authors examined mice with humanized lungs and followed how they reacted to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although the special mice were created years before the virus appeared, the study is led officials on Ruggiero’s team to determine the virus could have come from the lab in 2019.

During 2020, the Trump administration gathered evidence showing that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill in November 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and a common seasonal illness,” according to one State Department Bulletin published January 2020 shortly before President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Months later, on May 23, 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported more details about the incident, including that there were three researchers – all of whom sought medical help in a hospital.

But those reports described the researchers’ symptoms as “consistent” with Covid-19 and other known viruses like the flu. It’s also not clear whether scientists at the Wuhan Institute, a large research facility in a city larger than New York, worked with bat coronavirus. Many studies suggest that Covid was already circulating in Wuhan as early as November 2019, so the scientists may have become infected outside of work.

The Biden probe

Former Trump officials have been highlighting and highlighting some of the information pointing to the leak theory over the past few weeks when they urged the Biden administration to open a deeper investigation into the beginnings of the pandemic.

Last month, Biden ordered the intelligence services to redouble their efforts to investigate the origin issues. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration has received new information from China or elsewhere that will help officials make a clearer decision than the Trump administration.

Harding, the former CIA analyst, said she was concerned that the intelligence investigation was publicly announced because it could compromise sources and methods.

“The IC really likes to operate in the shadows and when the president announces that he has hired a newspaper then the next thing the IC does is go back and ping all of its sources and you generally don’t want to draw attention to you doing that,” said you.

And with China refusing to share vital lab data with the U.S., Biden officials face a similar challenge to the Trump officials who started the investigation in 2020. They will have to rely in part on circumstantial evidence that could prevent them from reaching a conclusion as to whether the virus originated in the Wuhan lab.

“It seems unlikely that in 90 days, or perhaps ever, we will have a definitive answer on the origins of Covid. I suspect that if a laboratory leak does occur, the likelihood of gaining access to definitive evidence is close to zero. It would be one of the best-guarded secrets in the history of the Communist Party, “said Zack Cooper, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “That doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for answers, but we should be realistic about the likelihood that we will have definitive evidence in 90 days.”

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