By Jeff Mason, Matt Spetalnick and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday ratcheted up his rhetoric against China over the coronavirus, saying Beijing should have acted faster to warn the world and dismissing criticism that his labeling it the “Chinese virus” was racist.
Trump’s tougher language marked an escalation in a bitter war of words between the world’s top two economies that has widened to include the global pandemic and media freedoms.
While Trump had previously left it mostly to his top aides to openly criticize China’s response to the virus, the Republican president joined the fray in earnest at a White House news conference on Wednesday.
“I don’t know if you’d say China’s to blame,” Trump said. “Certainly we didn’t get an early run on it. It would have been helpful if we had known about it earlier. But it comes from China, and it’s not a question about that – nobody’s questioning that.”
Trump, in his opening statement, described what he termed America’s “war against the Chinese virus.”
A reporter asked him whether it was wrong and potentially harmful to Asian-Americans to give the disease that name as well for an unnamed White House official to have privately termed it the “kung flu,” which has been widely condemned as racist.
“No, not at all. Not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100 percent,” Trump said. “It comes from China, there’s nothing not to agree.”
Trump noted that some Chinese officials had tried to blame the virus on the U.S. military, saying “that can’t happen, it’s not going to happen.” A senior State Department official condemned as “irresponsible” the Chinese accusation, made last week by a foreign ministry spokesman who provided no evidence,
Trump’s words contrasted sharply with his praise last week for Chinese President Xi Jinping and China’s data sharing about the disease.
Though Trump did not single out Xi for direct criticism, he said the Chinese government could have given “a lot earlier notice” about the virus.
The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected over 200,000 people and caused nearly 8,500 deaths in 164 nations, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.
In the United States, cases of the respiratory illness have now been reported in all 50 states, with known U.S. infections surging past 7,300, prompting millions to stay at home and upending American life. More than a hundred Americans have died from the virus.
Trump also criticized China’s decision to withdraw the press credentials of American journalists at three U.S. newspapers. “I’m not happy about that at all,” he said.
The senior State Department official said there were “lots of things” the United States could do in response but declined to specify possible actions.
Beijing announced on Wednesday what it said was retaliation against U.S. restrictions on Chinese journalists that includes revoking the accreditations of American correspondents with the New York Times NYT.N, News Corp’s NWSA.O Wall Street Journal and Washington Post whose credentials expire by the end of 2020.
The move is a sharp escalation of a dispute that saw Washington last month force Chinese state media firms to register as foreign embassies.
The episode is the latest in increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing, whose already strained ties over issues including trade, intellectual property rights and press freedom have further been tested by the virus outbreak.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Matt Spetalnick, Alexandra Alper and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Tom Brown)