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Trump seeks way to make China pay for pandemic, somehow

President Donald Trump at a White House news

President Donald Trump at a White House news conference Thursday. Credit: EPA / Jim Lo Scalzo

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A debt-collecting dilemma

U.S. officials are beginning to explore proposals for punishing or demanding financial compensation from China for how it handled the coronavirus outbreak that became a global pandemic, The Washington Post reported.

That won't be an easy mission to accomplish against one of the world's economic superpowers. One idea is to strip China of its "sovereign immunity" so it can be sued, but hurdles are high. Some officials floated canceling some federal debt obligations, but White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said no way: “The full faith and credit of U.S. debt obligations is sacrosanct.” Trump, in a news conference Thursday, mentioned tariffs. But some advisers warn against any punitive action when the U.S. depends in part on Chinese supplies for the coronavirus response.

Senior Trump administration officials also are pushing American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan was the origin of the outbreak, The New York Times reported.

In a statement Thursday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence debunked one conspiracy theory, saying they have concluded that the new coronavirus was “not manmade or genetically modified." A lab accident as the cause was not yet ruled out, the DNI office said, nor was the original story about human contact with infected animals.

Trump, fielding a question at his news conference, was asked if he had seen anything that gave him a "high degree of confidence" in the lab-origin theory. "Yes, I have," the president replied.

But then he seemed to backtrack, saying, "there’s a lot of theories” and “we’re going to see where it is, we’re going to see where it comes from.” Asked the confidence question again, he said, “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” He even seemed to hold out hope that China would be forthcoming. The Chinese government has defended its efforts and denied the lab was involved in any way.

Trump also appeared to be surprised when asked about the statement from the DNI office, which is run by a loyalist he installed as acting director, Richard Grenell. "Who said that?" Trump asked the reporter.

Janison: Donny come lately

The president's new tough-on-China narrative is aimed at beating back presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as well as Beijing, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Trump's skepticism about China was absent when it would have mattered. Instead, he accepted Chinese assurances that coronavirus would be contained long after U.S. intelligence briefings and officials such as trade adviser Peter Navarro sounded the pandemic threat.

Now, Trump is suggesting a plot by China to defeat him. "China will do anything they can to have me lose this race,” he told Reuters this week. He claimed with no factual backup that China wants Biden to win to ease pressure on trade relations.

Biden's denial

Biden delivered his first direct response to a sexual assault accusation Friday in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

"It is not true, I am saying unequivocally it never, never happened and it didn't," Biden said. "It never happened." In a written statement issued just before the interview, Biden called the allegations “complicated,” and said women “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The presumptive nominee has been under increasing pressure from Democrats to answer the accusation from a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, that Biden backed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers in 1993. Trump partisans have been beating the drums of potential scandal.

But the president, mindful of his own history, stood back a bit under questions Thursday at the news conference. Biden “should respond,” Trump said, but he added: "It could be false accusations. I know all about false accusations. I have been falsely charged numerous times, and there is such a thing.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday: “I’m satisfied with how he has responded. I know him." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted that Biden would have to release papers from his Senate days housed at the University of Delaware that could shed light on whether Reade made a complaint at the time.

The allegations have added a complication for women Biden might consider as a running mate, many who opposed the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 because of decades-old sexual-assault allegations against the judge, Politico reports.

Welcome back, Mike Flynn?

Trump's first national security adviser, Mike Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russia's ambassador. When Trump fired him, he said it was for concealing the truth from Vice President Mike Pence about that contact.

Now Pence is saying he's "more inclined more than ever to believe" that the untruths were "unintentional" and "not attempting to misrepresent facts." The comment comes after the release of internal FBI documents that Flynn's lawyers claim show the FBI tried to “intentionally frame” him. The documents suggest the bureau was prepared to close the investigation of Flynn in early 2017 but then reopened it, though it's not clear why.

Trump raged that Flynn was the victim of “dirty, filthy cops at the top of the FBI." He predicted that Flynn, who is seeking to withdraw his guilty plea, “would be exonerated based on everything I see” and that it could happen before he needed to consider a pardon. Trump even said he “would certainly consider" rehiring Flynn.

The newly disclosed documents don’t directly address the central allegation in the case — that Flynn lied to the FBI. He admitted that in his guilty plea. It’s also unclear how much significance the new defense arguments will have with the judge, Emmet Sullivan, who has already publicly scolded Flynn and rejected many defense allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, The Associated Press reported.

Pelosi: States want $1 trillion

Pelosi said Thursday that state and local governments are seeking up to $1 trillion for coronavirus costs.

That figure is certain to run into opposition from Senate Republicans, and Pelosi acknowledged the federal government may not be able to provide that much. But she said money for “heroes” is needed to prevent layoffs as governors and mayors stare down red ink in their budgets, The Associated Press reports.

The latest from Trump on help for states and cities: "If we do that, we're going to have to get something for it."

Cashing in on COVID-19

Former Trump administration and campaign officials have become lobbyists in high demand for big companies seeking to tap into million of dollars from financial and regulatory relief programs, The Washington Post reports.

The Trump alumni are leveraging their connections in a variety of ways — helping get their clients designated as “essential” services and securing meetings at the White House and federal agencies on their behalf, federal filings show.

In all, at least 25 former officials from the Trump administration, campaign or transition team are now registered as lobbyists for clients with coronavirus needs, according to The Post’s analysis of federal lobbying records and employment data compiled by ProPublica.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Another 3.8 million workers applied for jobless benefits last week, raising the total to 30.3 million in the six weeks since the U.S. coronavirus outbreak took hold. The layoffs amount to 1 in 6 American workers.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases expert, said on CNN that "if everything falls into place right," there could be a coronavirus vaccine by January. Fauci said the manufacture of strong vaccine candidates would begin before it's known whether they will work. But he said it "certainly is worth the [financial] risk, given what's at stake."
  • Pence wore a protective mask on Thursday during a visit to a General Motors plant in Indiana that is now making ventilators. On Tuesday, he went maskless at the Mayo Clinic, in violation of its rules. His wife, Karen Pence, said on "Fox & Friends" that the vice president wasn't aware of the policy. The clinic had said Pence's office was informed about it in advance.
  • Trump’s reelection campaign plans to launch its first major ad blitz next week, Politico reported. The first round of spots will tout his performance managing the coronavirus crisis. A second wave will slam Biden.
  • Biden's campaign named the co-chairs of its vice presidential selection committee for vetting potential running mates. They are former Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Cynthia C. Hogan, a former White House and Senate counsel to Biden.
  • Biden has agreed to let former primary rival Bernie Sanders keep hundreds of delegates he would otherwise forfeit by dropping out of the presidential race. The deal is designed to avoid the bitter feelings that marred the party in 2016 after Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders for the nomination.

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