Morning Brief

Pompeo Continues the China Blame Game

On a Sunday talk show, the U.S. Secretary of State repeated the claim that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes a question from a reporter during a news conference at the State Department on April 29, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes a question from a reporter during a news conference at the State Department on April 29, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeats coronavirus lab origin claim, North Korea releases new pictures of leader Kim Jong Un, and Italy sees lowest daily death toll since March 10.

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Pompeo Ratchets Up China Blame Game as U.S. Death Toll Rises

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated claims that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory in a television interview on Sunday. Talking to ABC’s Martha Raddatz, Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” supporting the claim, later adding, “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

Suggesting that China intentionally created or spread the virus has become a favorite tactic of the Trump administration, and reemerged even after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency overseeing all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and organizations, issued a statement on Thursday making clear that the U.S. intelligence community agreed with “the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” (The intelligence agencies did not dismiss the possibility of accidental release of naturally-occurring pathogens being studied in the lab.)

Asked about ODNI’s statement in the same interview, the former CIA director replied, “I’ve seen what the intelligence community has said.  I have no reason to believe that they’ve got it wrong.”

Pompeo the point man. Pompeo is becoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s most reliable lieutenant as the Trump administration seeks to blame China for mishandling the initial outbreak amid the U.S. government’s stumbling public health response and the ensuing economic crisis. As Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer wrote last Friday, Pompeo “has emerged as the face of the administration’s hard-line China strategy.”

Pompeo has increased his engagement with the media since the pandemic began, conducting over 90 interviews and media roundtables with U.S. and international outlets in April alone. A recent cluster of Trump-friendly conservative talk show interviews are included in that count, leading to criticism that the secretary may be dodging tough questions.

“He’s spending a heck of a lot less time communicating to the world about why the Trump administration is doing what it’s doing. The other effect is he’s made the role of secretary of state much more partisan, and historically they were supposed to stay above the fray,” Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement at the White House under President Barack Obama, told Foreign Policy.


What We’re Following Today

Gunfire at DMZ as Kim Jong Un photos surface. North Korea appeared to put speculation over Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s whereabouts to rest on Friday by releasing images and video of Kim touring a fertilizer factory. On Sunday, an unnamed South Korean official speaking to Reuters dismissed as untrue reports that Kim’s absence from the public eye was due to a medical procedure. Others have speculated that he had gone into isolation to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

There was more drama on the Korean Peninsula over the weekend. On Saturday, troops exchanged gunfire across the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), with South Korea responding to shots fired at a rural guard post. No casualties were reported. The United Nations Command at the DMZ said they would conduct a “thorough investigation” into whether the actions constitute a breach of the armistice agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down the exchange, calling the gunfire “accidental.” 

Venezuela claims to have stopped armed incursion. Venezuelan government authorities say they have thwarted an attempted marine incursion north of the capital, Caracas. The alleged attack took place early on Sunday morning and supposedly involved speedboats ferrying “terrorist mercenaries” to the port of La Guaira via neighboring Colombia, according to Interior Minister Nestor Reverol. Diosdado Cabello, the leader of the Socialist Party, said eight people were killed and a further two detained. The Colombian government has denied any involvement.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó accused President Nicolás Maduro’s government of distracting people from internal issues, such as a recent prison riot that left dozens dead. “The regime is seeking to divert attention with a supposed incident plagued with inconsistencies, doubts and contradictions,” a statement from Guaidó’s press representatives said.

The details of the reported invasion bear a striking resemblance to an Associated Press investigative report published on Friday about Jordan Goudreau (a former U.S. Army Green Beret) and Cliver Alcalá (a retired Venezuelan major general) and their hapless 2019 attempt to foment an uprising in Venezuela.

Bolsonaro joins anti-democracy protesters. Embattled Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro joined anti-democracy demonstrators in front of his presidential palace on Sunday, as they called for the closing of the Supreme Court and a return to measures used during the country’s period of military rule. “We have the armed forces at the people’s side: the side of order, democracy, liberty,” Bolsonaro told the crowd. “Enough interference. We’re not allowing any more interference. Our patience is over.”

On Saturday, former Justice Minister Sergio Moro gave eight hours of testimony to federal investigators, and turned over text message exchanges and other electronic communications as the case against Bolsonaro for interfering with the country’s federal police gathers pace.


Keep an Eye On

Argentina’s debt woes. Argentina’s minister of Economy Martín Guzmán has called for a restructuring of the country’s debt obligations and for bondholders to accept a reduced return. Writing in the Financial Times on Sunday, Guzmán said that Argentina’s debt troubles are a window into what similarly indebted countries will be facing in a post-coronavirus world. “Bondholders have a choice: recognize the historic challenges and seek new ways forward,” he wrote, “or stubbornly insist on short-sighted repayment terms that appear to provide quick returns but only degrade debtor countries and undermine their ability to repay.”

Negotiations with Argentina’s bondholders, which include several U.S.-based institutional investors and hedge funds, have to date proved fruitless for the country.

Writing in Foreign Policy on Sunday, James Crabtree highlighted the weak position of emerging market countries such as Argentina and called for a “far greater scale” of debt cancellation than what is currently being considered by the IMF and creditor countries.

Italy records lower death toll, begins easing lockdown. Italy recorded its lowest daily death toll since March 10 as the country begins to ease its lockdown measures. Only 174 new deaths were reported on Sunday, a sharp decline from 474 deaths the previous day.

Starting today, Italians will see a slight easing of the social restrictions put in place over the past eight weeks. Government guidelines now state that residents will be allowed visit relatives and those with whom they share a “stable bond of affection.” After confusion over whether a “stable bond” included friendships, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s office confirmed that for the time being it did not.


The World This Week

The first round of U.S.-U.K. trade talks will begin on Tuesday, May 5, via videoconference between U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and British International Trade Secretary Liz Truss. The initial round of talks will take two weeks, and further talks are scheduled to continue every six weeks.

On Thursday, May 7, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics will release its monthly employment situation report, covering the month of April. The in-depth look at U.S. workforce trends comes amid rising unemployment across the country: 30 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States since the pandemic struck.

Israel’s Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on whether Benjamin Netanyahu can form a government while facing corruption charges, potentially derailing his nascent coalition with rival Benny Gantz and forcing another election. Netanyahu’s trial had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and is now slated to begin on May 24.


Odds and Ends

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has called for an investigation after coronavirus testing kits his country procured appeared to be defective. Perhaps wary of the experience of the United Kingdom, which paid $20 million for faulty antibody and coronavirus test kits, Tanzanian security officials devised a novel solution: They tested the kits by including samples from a goat, a sheep, and a papaya. The officials assigned the animal and fruit samples human names and dates of birth before sending them to a lab; all three tests came back positive.

“There is something happening. I said before we should not accept that every aid is meant to be good for this nation,” Magufuli declared. He confirmed the tests had been imported from abroad, but would not name the country of origin.

Magufuli has shown no such suspicion when it comes to untested coronavirus treatments, however. He recently announced that his government would send a plane to Madagascar to import a herbal tonic produced from the artemisia plant—the source of an ingredient in drugs to treat malaria. The drink has been billed as a cure for the coronavirus despite the World Health Organization’s  warnings that—after being tested on just 20 people—there was no proof of any cure. “We will despatch a flight to bring the medicine so that Tanzanians can also benefit. So as the government we are working day and night,” Magufuli said.


That’s it for today. 

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com

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

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