As international pressure mounts for an investigation into the origins of the deadly coronavirus, officials in the State Department say they are increasingly wary about Secretary Mike Pompeo continuing to push a theory that scientists and foreign intelligence officials have already shot down, claiming it could have disastrous diplomatic consequences.
President Donald Trump and Pompeo have for weeks publicly pushed the story that the coronavirus originated in and escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, where scientists were conducting experiments. In a press conference last week, Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in the lab. China has denied the claims. And foreign intelligence officials and even members of the White House’s own coronavirus task force have pushed back against that claim, saying the virus most likely originated in the wild and was naturally transmitted from animal to human, possibly in a public market.
Those contradictions have senior officials at the State Department, six of whom spoke to The Daily Beast, on edge, worrying that the secretary, in particular, is moving too quickly to publicly conclude what intelligence officials around the world are either still trying to understand or have said is inaccurate.
The public declarations by Pompeo have already begun to disrupt diplomatic relationships between the State Department and its allies, multiple officials said. One official told The Daily Beast that their counterparts in Europe and Australia have over the past week voiced frustration at Pompeo, saying his statements not only contradict parts of their intelligence assessments but that they would make it difficult for the countries to get China to allow an independent investigation. Another official said Europe’s skittishness was a result of “needing medical equipment from China.”
“I think most Western countries are getting to where the U.S. wants them to be,” one State Department official said, referring to the call for China to allow for an investigation. “But the more Pompeo and Trump talk like this, the higher the chances of an Iraq intel repeat happening… which will just undermine us in the end.”
The growing tensions inside the State Department highlight the extent to which officials fear the repercussions of Pompeo’s very public statements. On national television and in press conferences at the department, he has repeatedly suggested that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab, but he has yet to produce evidence backing up that assertion.
“There’s a real concern that as a department we’ve gone way out on a limb,” one senior State Department official said. “At the end of the day details matter. We don’t want to get into another situation where we’re coming out claiming all these things and then we have to back track later.”
“Secretary Pompeo’s statements have been wholly consistent with those of other senior officials,” a State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “The world does not have certainty regarding the origin of the virus, simply because the CCP has not shared information in the manner it is required to, according to international rules to which they agreed. If the secretary has been outspoken—and he has—it has been to call for the CCP to be transparent and to share data so that the world can learn with certainty how this calamity befell the world and how we can all avoid a pandemic like this in the future.”
Pompeo isn’t alone in his public comments on China. On May 1, Trump told reporters he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus originated in a lab accident in China. But his own intelligence community said in a public statement last week that even though the virus originated in China, it would “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.”
That assessment preceded the leak of a 15-page dossier put together through an intelligence-sharing partnership between the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. known as Five Eyes. That dossier concluded that China covered up vital information on the virus that cost tens of thousands of lives, according to the Daily Telegraph, but it didn’t conclude that the lab was responsible for the outbreak. It also said the Australian government believed there was a 5 percent chance that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and that it more likely originated in a wet market.
Members of the Trump coronavirus task force have also questioned Pompeo and Trump’s claims.
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what's out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during an interview with National Geographic last week. “Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”
He went on to call the argument over the virus origins a “circular argument.”
“I don’t get what they’re talking about… if it isn’t manipulated in the lab and you’re trying to say it escaped from the lab then how did it get in the lab? It got in the lab because somebody isolated it from the environment,” Fauci said.
No one seemed to better summarize the confusion than General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he told reporters last we that the U.S. simply didn’t know whether the outbreak began in the lab or in a market. “The weight of the evidence is that it was natural and not man-made.”
It’s not just the conflicting intelligence and scientific studies that concern State Department officials. They, too, are agitated that all conversation about China and the virus has moved underground. Diplomats are increasingly being told to rely solely on Pompeo’s statements when speaking with counterparts about the administration’s position on the origins of the virus.
Since the beginning of the outbreak the State Department has worked to bring Americans stuck abroad home and to help facilitate the delivery of medical supplies to countries grappling with an increasing number of infections and virus-related deaths. But Trump and senior officials in the White House have predominantly relied on Pompeo and his State Department to lead the way in publicly chastising China for the virus outbreak and for failing to quickly inform the rest of the world about the deadly virus.
Over the last two months as the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the U.S., killing tens of thousands of people, the State Department ramped up a messaging campaign, condemning China and highlighting the extent to which the U.S. was providing humanitarian aid to countries seeking assistance during the outbreak.
According to cables obtained by and previously reported on by The Daily Beast, the department sent talking points to embassies, telling them to emphasize Beijing orchestrating a “cover-up” and creating a global pandemic.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] is waging a propaganda campaign to desperately try to shift responsibility for the global pandemic to the United States. This effort is futile,” one of the talking points in the cable reads. “Thanks to the… cover-up, Chinese and international experts missed a critical window to contain the outbreak within China and stop its global spread. Saving lives is more important than saving face.”
Those messaging cables have slowed significantly, with few updates from the embassy in China, officials said, leaving diplomats in the dark about what exactly the department’s guidance is on China.
“Pompeo keeps making claims that we have no other talking points to support… and so the talking points are ‘as the Secretary said,’” one State official told The Daily Beast.