Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy

Republicans are amplifying President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: The Hill’s interview with Anthony Fauci Trump’s routing number revealed as press secretary announces he’s donating quarterly salary to HHS: report Former White House aide won M contract to supply masks amid pandemic MORE‘s anti-China rhetoric on Capitol Hill and in campaign ads across the country as the White House seeks to blame Beijing for a pandemic that has devastated the U.S. economy and killed almost 100,000 people in the U.S.

It’s a message that’s playing well with Trump’s base — nearly a third of voters say they view China as “the enemy” — and is reminiscent of the hard-line, anti-immigrant positions that helped catapult him to the White House in 2016.

But it’s unclear if ratcheting up the pressure on China will prove to be a winning campaign strategy with the broader electorate amid sagging poll numbers and daily news reports detailing Trump’s slow and shaky response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I think the anti-China message has currency, not just with the GOP base but also with some swing and independent voters as well. That’s why it’s appealing to the Trump campaign — and you even see that the Biden campaign has dipped their toe in the water on this too,” said Lanhee Chen, who led policy for Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Pelosi, Democrats press case for mail-in voting amid Trump attacks Romney counters Trump: 90 percent of ‘very Republican’ Utah votes by mail MORE’s 2012 presidential campaign and advised Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOn The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Senate leaves for break without passing Paycheck Protection Program fix MORE’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign in 2016.

But Chen said two other factors will ultimately decide whether voters hand the president a second term in November: the state of the economy and Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“The downside risk for campaigns of focusing on the political attacks against China is that it may appear as though they are trying to distract from these two principal questions,” Chen said.

Until recently, Trump had a cozy relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He hosted Xi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in 2017. Xi returned the favor during a state visit that year, when Xi took Trump and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Melania Trump thanks students in video message during CNN town hall MORE on a tour of Beijing’s Forbidden City and to an opera performance.

Trump praised China’s coronavirus response more than 30 times between January and March as the virus began spreading around the world, according to a CNN tally.

But that relationship quickly soured once the death toll and jobless rate began to soar. The coronavirus has now claimed more than 95,000 lives and infected nearly 1.6 million people in the U.S.; close to 40 million people in the U.S. are now unemployed.

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In recent days, Trump has lashed out on Twitter that the “incompetence of China” led to “mass Worldwide killing.” He even floated the idea that a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the first outbreak was reported, had accidentally unleashed the virus — an unsubstantiated theory that some of his own top medical experts have dismissed.

The president has also threatened economic retaliation against Beijing and the withdrawal of U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, which Trump and his allies see as complicit in failing to warn the international community about the pandemic.

Republican candidates and lawmakers are taking their cues from Trump.

Jim Bognet, a former Trump administration official who’s running in the GOP primary to take on Rep. Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden leads Trump by 6 points in new poll Warren announces slate of endorsements including Wendy Davis and Cornyn challenger Hegar Human Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary MORE (D-Pa.), is running ads vowing to “make China pay for the lies they told, the jobs they stole and the lives we’ve lost.” 

The pro-Trump super PAC America First Action is running $10 million worth of ads in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, attacking “Beijing Biden” in an effort to paint former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOn The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K Trump to attend SpaceX launch in Florida Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting MORE as soft on China and its coronavirus response. 

Biden swung back at Trump with an anti-China ad of his own, arguing that Trump “rolled over for the Chinese” and “let in 40,000 from China into America” during the pandemic. Asian American groups, typically aligned with Biden, condemned the ad as racist for failing to distinguish between Chinese people and the Chinese communist government. 

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans have launched a partisan committee charged with investigating what Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead GOP pulls support from California House candidate over ‘unacceptable’ social media posts The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Mnuchin, Powell: Economy may need more boost; Trump defends malaria drug MORE (R-Calif.) has called the Chinese Communist Party’s coronavirus “cover-up” and “propaganda campaign.” 

And GOP lawmakers have proposed a plethora of bills targeting China. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a member of the China task force, authored legislation that would make it harder for the Chinese government to invest in U.S. companies crippled by the pandemic. Another bill, by Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerHouse passes massive T coronavirus relief package Bottom line Campaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis MORE (R-Mo.), would greenlight a series of retaliatory measures against Beijing, including freezing assets, imposing sanctions and travel restrictions, and requiring China to compensate Americans for COVID-19 losses.

In recent days, congressional Republicans have been repeating this refrain — the United States is engaged in a new “cold war” with China — in a bid to rally Americans behind the president.

“They’re in for world domination. … Understand you have an enemy. They’re an adversary. It’s called communist China,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “They intentionally didn’t tell us about the coronavirus. It was intentional. … You can see it was intentional.”

While Democrats launched a bipartisan committee to oversee trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid, they have rebuffed invitations to join the GOP’s China panel. That’s given Republican leaders an opening.

“For whatever reason, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] doesn’t want to confront China, and it’s a major weakness,” House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseRepublicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries Trump campaign launches new fundraising program with House Republicans GOP sees groundswell of women running in House races MORE (R-La.) said in a phone interview. “Speaker Pelosi has turned a blind eye towards [China]. …  I don’t know why they are covering for the Chinese Communist Party, but they are.”

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U.S-China relations were further complicated this past week when Beijing said it would deploy sweeping new security powers that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFunding the WHO supports Taiwan’s membership House chairmen demand explanation on Trump’s ‘illegal’ withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty Stocks tick lower as US-China tensions rise MORE warned would be the “death knell” for political freedoms in Hong Kong.

The GOP’s China-bashing comes as a growing number of Americans view the global economic powerhouse as a hostile threat to the U.S. Thirty-one percent of Americans said China is “the enemy,” up 11 percentage points since January, according to a Politico-Morning Consult poll. Only 23 percent of Americans see China as an ally or friend, down 9 points during that same period.

“Americans are increasingly suspicious and distrustful of China. This might be an effective tactic to unite the country and deflect attention from some of the strange and irresponsible comments the president has made in the context of the COVID crisis,” said former GOP Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloRepublicans can’t exploit the left’s climate extremism without a better idea Progressive Latino group launches first incumbent protection campaign The Memo: Bad polls for Trump shake GOP MORE, who lost his diverse, Miami-area swing district in the 2018 midterms that handed Democrats control of the House.

“The president’s campaign will do everything possible to make it about China, immigration, and Joe Biden’s shortcomings,” Curbelo said, “but that is unlikely to change the fundamental nature of a contest featuring a controversial incumbent.”

Indeed, recent polls have shown Trump’s approval numbers are sliding, particularly when it comes to his handling of the deadly pandemic. A Fox News poll sounded alarm bells in the Trump campaign by showing that 46 percent of voters said they trusted Biden to handle the pandemic, compared with 37 percent who trusted Trump. Asked who they would vote for today, 48 percent said Biden, while 40 percent said Trump.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are also seizing on a new study by Columbia University that says Trump’s initial reluctance to take COVID-19 seriously cost tens of thousands of lives.

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As for the GOP’s anti-China rhetoric, Democrats say it is outright “racist,” arguing that Trump is only trying to distract voters from his own failure to avert a health and economic crisis under his watch.

“There’s no question that there are real issues about China’s transparency … [but] the president from the very early days of this pandemic attempted to minimize the seriousness of it, suggested to the American people the coronavirus would go away miraculously on its own, that once the warm weather came it would just disappear, that it was nothing more than a hoax by the Democrats intending to undermine his leadership and his presidency,” said Rhode Island Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting House Democrat to introduce bill cracking down on ad targeting Merger moratorium takes center stage in antitrust debate MORE, who heads the Democrats’ policy and communications operation.

“He squandered six or more weeks of valuable time that he should have been preparing,” Cicilline added. “This is part of a pattern where the president is trying to assign responsibility to somebody, some organization, some person, some country, to really distract from his own failures.”

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.