Washington (AFP) – Branded “insane” by Chinese state media but hailed by US conservatives, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is taking the lead in pressing a hard line against Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic.
Pompeo has been at the forefront of bringing into the mainstream a theory that the illness that has killed nearly 250,000 worldwide slipped out of a virology laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged last year.
The hawkish role is familiar for Pompeo, who has also advocated sweeping pressure on Iran including a January drone strike that killed one of its top generals.
The former Army infantryman has for months been describing China as a major adversary on everything from technology to defense — a contrast with President Donald Trump, who has abruptly swung from assailing to praising Beijing.
Yet Pompeo has also managed a rare feat in Trump’s Washington — staying in the good graces of the mercurial president, who is not known to have uttered a critical word against his top aide.
Washington watchers see loyalty to Trump as the ultimate principle of Pompeo, whose own political future is tied to sticking by Trump and helping him win re-election in November.
A former congressman, Pompeo has been unabashedly partisan as compared with past US top diplomats, recently criticizing Trump’s presumptive Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden by name at a State Department news conference.
Douglas Paal, a senior Asia adviser under previous Republican presidents, said that Pompeo’s focus on China’s role in the pandemic was in line with Trump’s re-election strategy.
“The economy has cratered, the stock market has cratered, so what else do you run on in the election? Well, run against China,” said Paal, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said that Pompeo, who has only made two brief visits to Beijing since taking office two years ago, takes a more ideological approach to China than previous secretaries of state.
“Every time, it’s never the ‘Chinese government.’ It’s always the ‘Chinese Communist Party.’ That terminology seems to explain to them everything about what China is doing,” he said.
– ‘Spewing poison’ –
Pompeo, in an interview Sunday on ABC, said there was “enormous evidence” that the new coronavirus came out of a Wuhan lab — not a wet market, as most scientists suggest.
“Remember, China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories,” he said.
Pressed in the interview, Pompeo, formerly the CIA chief, walked back his statement that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was “man-made,” an idea explicitly rejected by US intelligence.
Chinese state media on Monday responded with harsh commentary reminiscent of North Korea’s colorful harangues, denouncing his remarks as “insane” and entitling a commentary, “Evil Pompeo is wantonly spewing poison and spreading lies.”
Pompeo has also joined Trump in attacking the World Health Organization, which said Monday it had no evidence that the virus came out of a laboratory.
– Rallying conservatives –
Even while making enemies in Beijing, Pompeo has found friends in one welcome area for him — Trump’s conservative base.
He steadfastly defended Trump during his impeachment, even after the president lampooned US diplomats who were alarmed over his strong-arming of Ukraine.
More recently, Pompeo has feuded on Twitter with Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading liberal Democrat, after she doubted his Iran strategy.
Pompeo surprised many political watchers earlier this year by declining to run for Senate in his strongly Republican home state of Kansas, a seat that would have given him a perch in Washington even if Trump loses.
But the 56-year-old is widely seen as entertaining presidential ambitions of his own in 2024 and, even while leading US foreign policy in a crisis, he has waded into domestic social issues.
He recently won praise from Christian conservatives for a Twitter attack on “radical leftist scholars” who spoke of risks to homeschooling children.
An evangelical Christian who often speaks of his faith, Pompeo has also taken to tweeting verses from the Bible.
On Sunday, just as he was renewing his charges about the Wuhan laboratory, he quoted from the Book of Proverbs: “Be sure of this: the wicked will not go unpunished, but the descendants of the righteous will go free.”