As Donald Trump and congressional Republicans ramp up their public-facing “blame China” campaign to obfuscate the White House’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, top administration officials are putting the pressure on behind the scenes. According to the New York Times, U.S. spy agencies are under the gun to unearth evidence that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese biolab. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reportedly taken point in this effort (when prompted by the Times on his leading role, the State Department declined to comment). “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers—that China hasn’t shared the answers—I think is very, very telling,” Pompeo said earlier this month, adding that China should allow outside experts to investigate “the Wuhan Institute of Virology” to “determine precisely where this virus began.”
One of the first prominent voices to send this theory into the mainstream was Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Back on Feb. 10, Carlson speculated that COVID-19 “is not a naturally occurring virus, that it was somehow created by the Chinese government.” Several days later, Senator Tom Cotton entertained a similar idea in Fox News. “We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that. We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level four super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases,” said the Arkansas Republican, who, in March, was invited on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show to elaborate on his speculation. Cotton’s theory was also pushed, without evidence, by Steve Bannon. The former Trump adviser hosted a guest during the February 21 edition of his radio show who asserted that he had “no doubt” coronavirus is a “man-made” creation. In early March, Rush Limbaugh chimed in, asking his massive audience rhetorically, “Nothing like wiping out the entire U.S. economy with a biothreat from China, is there?”
In the past week, the theory has been given favorable explanations on Fox News’s top-rated show, Hannity, and Fox Business’s top-rated show, Lou Dobbs Tonight. “I personally believe it’s entirely possible that [China] engineered the Wuhan virus,” Dobbs said Wednesday. While guest-hosting for Sean Hannity on Friday, Mike Huckabee helpfully considered out loud “the possibility that the Chinese have developed some type of biological weaponry, and that’s what got loose with all of this.”
The right-wing media’s role in propagating these conspiracy theories can’t be overstated. And for some, it recalls the past. A former U.S. intelligence official recalled to the Times the Bush–era phrase “conclusion shopping” in describing the current administration’s quest to unearth proof for its China conspiracy. At the time, unverified claims about Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction fed the Bush administration’s warmongering, with Limbaugh acknowledging that reports about the weapons were “unconfirmed,” but nevertheless seeming convinced; Fox News’s top prime-time host at the time, Bill O’Reilly, asserting the country “did have ricin” while working to sell his audience on the invasion; a cabinet secretary saying there was “no question in my mind” that the stories were true; and the vice president declaring he had “no doubt” about the weapons’ existence.
The Bush administration never found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the theorizing alone helped start an eight-year war. It’s unlikely that the Trump administration’s search for evidence to prove coronavirus originated in a government laboratory in China—a theory Xi Jinping’s regime has denied—will result in armed conflict, but many in the president’s orbit are spurred on by a similar feedback loop, as the Times notes: Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who, since January, has pushed intelligence officials to find evidence for the lab-made virus theory; and Anthony Ruggiero, who heads the National Security Council’s bureau tracking weapons of mass destruction, have also apparently played vital roles.