The push for retaliatory measures by some of Trump’s leading Christian supporters underscores the dicey position in which he finds himself as the 2020 election closes in: forced to determine whether a laundry list of accomplishments, such as an intact trade deal with China, will carry him to reelection or if the deciding factor will be how voters score his handling of Covid-19. Part of that rests on whether his response to the Chinese government satisfies conservative evangelicals, a demographic that comprises much of his political base and which the Trump campaign has sought to grow in recent months.
“People don’t want China to get off scot-free,” said Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn. “I think it’s important to realize there are lots of people who are very concerned with what has transpired, so of course they want China to be held to account.”
In an interview, the Tennessee senator said Trump needs to maintain a “working relationship” with Beijing as efforts to contain Covid-19 continue in the U.S. But she added that Trump cannot let China escape culpability for under-reporting domestic cases of the virus and inflicting damage on the global economy as a result of its cover-up. Blackburn has proposed legislation to reduce America’s reliance on China for pharmaceutical supplies.
“The ironic and disgusting thing about China is they get to both create demand and then fulfill demand,” said Gary Bauer, a Christian activist who was appointed by Trump to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“I think there’s a growing acknowledgment in the U.S. and around the world that China’s communist rulers are bad actors and, in some way, there has to be some sort of reckoning for all of this,” he added.
One popular proposal in evangelical circles, where some Trump allies remain wary of drastic retaliatory actions such as new sanctions, is for China to forgive a significant portion of the $1.1 trillion the U.S. government owes to it. The idea has been circulated by several Republican lawmakers, including Blackburn and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said “the whole world should send China a bill for the pandemic” during a Fox News appearance Monday night.
“I agree with Sen. Graham,” said Mark Burns, a South Carolina pastor and top Trump surrogate who wants the president to lead a coordinated international effort to hold China accountable for its Covid-19 response.
“It’s similar to when our founders began drafting the Declaration of Independence and they felt that Thomas Jefferson should write most of it because he was from Virginia, which at the time was the strongest and most powerful colony. President Trump should lead this response and rally other nations who have been greatly affected by the virus to challenge China on a major scale,” Burns suggested.
Securing such a commitment from other countries could prove difficult for Trump, who has banned exports of personal protective equipment (PPE) — the masks, gloves and protective clothing worn by health care workers who are treating Covid-19 patients. Several European countries whose health care systems have buckled under the pressure of addressing this pandemic have instead received PPE shipments from China, or from Alibaba tech titan Jack Ma. Medical supplies from China have also been sent to some U.S. states hit hard by the virus.