WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials have pushed US spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, according to current and former US officials. The effort comes as President Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic.
Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than 3 million people across the globe.
Most intelligence agencies are skeptical that evidence could link the virus to a lab, and scientists who have studied the genetics of COVID-19 say that it most likely leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with HIV, Ebola, and SARS.
Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress have sought to blame China for the pandemic in part to deflect criticism of the administration’s mismanagement of the crisis in the United States, which now has more cases than any country.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director and the administration’s most vocal hard-liner on China, has taken the lead in pushing US intelligence agencies for more information, according to current and former officials.
Anthony Ruggiero, the head of the National Security Council’s bureau tracking weapons of mass destruction, expressed frustration during a videoconference in January that the CIA was unable to get behind any theory of the outbreak’s origin. CIA analysts responded that they did not have the evidence to support any one theory at the time, according to people familiar with the conversation.
The CIA’s judgment was based in part on the fact that no signs had emerged that the Chinese government believed the outbreak came from a lab. The Chinese government has vigorously denied that the virus leaked from a lab while pushing disinformation on its origins, including suggesting that the US military created it.
Any US intelligence report blaming a Chinese institution and officials for the outbreak could significantly harm relations with China for years to come. And Trump administration officials could use it to try to prod other nations to publicly hold China accountable for coronavirus deaths even when the pandemic’s exact origins cannot be determined.
In a statement released on Thursday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the intelligence community “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Intelligence agencies, it said, agree “with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”
The current and former officials did not say whether Trump himself, who has shown little regard for the independent judgments of intelligence and law enforcement officials.
He has expressed interest in an idea pushed by Michael Pillsbury, an informal China adviser to the White House, that Beijing could be sued for damages, with the United States seeking $10 million for every death. At a news conference this week, Trump said the administration was discussing a “very substantial” reparations claim against China — an idea that Beijing has already denounced.
“President Trump is demanding to know the origins of the virus and what Xi Jinping knew when about the cover-up,” Pillsbury said.