Morning Brief

U.S. Intelligence Says Coronavirus Isn’t Manmade. Trump Isn’t So Sure.

The White House has not given up its goal of making the coronavirus pandemic a battle against China.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the White House April 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the White House April 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The U.S. intelligence community says the coronavirus was not manmade, the Arab League condemns Israel’s annexation plans, and Russia’s prime minister is diagnosed with the coronavirus.

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U.S.-China Blame Game Continues

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. agency responsible for overseeing the sprawling U.S. intelligence network, said on Thursday that it sees the coronavirus as a natural phenomenon. “The Intelligence Community … concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

The statement undercuts a popular conspiracy theory that the virus was developed in a Wuhan laboratory. A less conspiratorial theory holds that naturally-occurring bat coronaviruses being studied at a Wuhan lab may have been unintentionally spread outside of the building due to lax biosecurity protocols. The intelligence community report did not rule out the possibility of accidental escape of pathogens.

Trump blames China, again. The U.S. commander-in chief seems eager to cast blame on China regardless of what his intelligence experts conclude. When asked at a White House press conference whether he has seen any evidence that the virus began in a Chinese lab, U.S. President Donald Trump replied, “Yes, I have.” He didn’t give any further details, other than he has a “high degree of confidence” that the virus came from a Chinese lab.

The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to blame China for the coronavirus and has tried a number of strategies, from the initial travel restrictions, to the branding of the coronavirus as the “Chinese” virus, to this more aggressive play. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Trump administration officials are preparing a menu of retaliatory options, including suing China for damages.

China has consistently denied any wrongdoing surrounding the origins of the coronavirus. On Thursday, Xinhua, a Chinese state news outlet, posted a video mocking the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic—through the medium of LEGO.

Isn’t there a pandemic still going on? Amid the geopolitical posturing, it’s worth asking why it’s happening. James Green, writing in Foreign Policy provides a compelling reason: bickering provides a distraction for two governments that would prefer to talk about anything other than how they have handled the outbreak.

He calls on the United States to step up and put the blame game aside. “The U.S. government and its institutions will be judged by how they deal with the outbreak and its aftermath—not by a finger-pointing tweet,” Green writes. “Time to show some self-confidence and not sully the country with the eye-for-eye tactics of the Chinese Communist Party.”

What We’re Following Today

Russia’s prime minister has coronavirus. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, making him the first high-ranking Russian official with a confirmed infection. Mishustin publicly announced the news in a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “What is happening to you can happen to anyone,” Putin told Mishustin. “When you get to the hospital, call me. I’ll be waiting for your call.” Mishustin has been one of the key figures in Russia’s coronavirus response, as cases in the country have pushed past the 100,000 mark. He has recommended First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov as his temporary replacement.

Arab League condemns annexation. The member states of the Arab League issued a joint statement on Thursday calling Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank a “new war crime” against the Palestinian people. Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Israel was being opportunistic, using the world’s distraction during the coronavirus pandemic to “impose a new reality on the ground.”

Writing in Foreign Policy on April 23, a trio of seasoned Israeli military commanders warned Israel against annexation. Ami Ayalon (a former chief of the Israeli Shin Bet security service), Tamir Pardo (a former director of the Mossad), and Gadi Shamni (a former commander of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command) argued that annexation would undermine Israeli security and could spark a popular backlash in Jordan and Egypt—two countries that backed today’s Arab League statement. “This irreversible step, once taken, is likely to trigger a chain reaction beyond Israel’s control,” they wrote.

Johnson says worst is behind U.K. In his first press conference since leaving the hospital, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the United Kingdom had moved past its peak number of coronavirus cases. “I can confirm today that for the first time, we are past the peak of this disease. We’re past the peak and we’re on the downward slope, and we have so many reasons to be hopeful for the long term,” he said. Johnson added that his government would be issuing a plan next week to reopen businesses and schools. Britain has recorded the third highest coronavirus death toll globally at 26,097.

Keep an Eye On

Lebanon lays out economic rescue plan. Lebanon outlined a rescue plan for its tattered economy on Thursday amid hopes it can secure funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “If we get (IMF support), and God willing we will, it will help us to pass through this difficult economic phase, which could be three, four or five years,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said, after his cabinet approved the plan. Lebanon is seeking $10 billion in external support, Diab added.

In March, Lebanon defaulted on a debt payment of $1.2 billion, marking the first time it had defaulted on its sovereign debt. The economic crisis has fueled months of unrest, and one protester was killed this week during demonstrations in the city of Tripoli.

Turkey not backing down on S-400. Turkey continued to make clear its ambitions for the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, even as the U.S. threatens sanctions if it is deployed. Turkey has delayed deploying the system, saying it was focused on its coronavirus response. Speaking on Thursday, Ibrahim Kalin, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said although an April launch is now not possible, Turkey will “move forward as it was planned.”

The United States renewed its threat on Thursday when David Satterfield, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said its NATO ally will expose itself to sanctions if it makes the S-400 system operational. Washington already retaliated against Turkey last summer by kicking it off the U.S. F-35 fighter program after it had initially purchased the Russian weapon system.

Odds and Ends

While Berlin has moved to increase its number of cycle lanes in anticipation of a ridership shortfall on public transit, France is looking to go one better and give cyclists cash to repair their bikes. Environment Minister Elisabeth Borne announced a $22 million dollar scheme to boost cycling infrastructure, the majority of which will be distributed in 50 euro checks to individuals to get their bikes in working order. “We want this period to be another step toward a cycling culture,” Borne wrote on Twitter.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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