'Don't Defend Trump, Attack China,' GOP Memo Says as Beijing Becomes Bludgeon for Both Campaigns

A memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to GOP candidates has urged campaigns not to "defend Trump" over the coronavirus pandemic, advising them instead to "attack China."

The memo, which was put together by the strategic communications firm O'Donnell & Associates and dated April 17, was sent out as Republicans and President Donald Trump attempt to gain political mileage from worldwide outrage at China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's campaign has also attempted to present Trump as deferring too much to China in the early days of the outbreak.

"Note - don't defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban -- attack China," the memo, which was first reported by Politico, says on page 6.

Xi and Trump
President Donald Trump talks to China's President Xi Jinping in front of First Lady Melania Trump as they arrive for a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017 THOMAS PETER/AFP/Getty

It goes on to list a series of talking points that Republicans can use in a bid to reframe the narrative. GOP candidates and their campaigns are instructed to shift blame to China, while also noting that the president acted early to ban most foreign nationals who had recently traveled to mainland China.

"This is China's fault. The virus came from China and China covered it up. Because China lied about the extent of the virus, our public health officials acted late," the memo suggests as a talking point. "I wish that everyone acted earlier -- that includes our elected officials, the World Health Organization, and the CDC," it adds. "I'm glad that President Trump acted early to ban travel to China -- that's something my Democratic opponent did not support and that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi criticized as xenophobic and racist," the document continues.

The strategy document also lays out a series of talking points to suggest that Democrats and Biden have been weak in response to China. It points out that Biden had criticized Trump's decision to ban foreign nationals who'd recently been to China, while also arguing that the former vice president has "downplayed China's economic threat to the U.S."

Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump's re-election campaign, criticized the memo in a statement to Newsweek.

"Under President Trump's leadership, Republicans gained more Senate seats than any president in midterm elections in the last 50 years," Murtaugh said. "The senators are getting bad advice from Brett O'Donnell and are well aware that President Trump has unprecedented support from Republicans nationwide. They will need that enthusiasm to be successful in November."

Newsweek has reached out to the NSRC as well as Biden's campaign for comment.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign last Saturday released an ad countering criticism from the right that he has been weak on China. Instead, the video shows Trump praising China's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"He failed to act. So now Trump and his allies are launching negative attacks against Joe Biden and to hide the truth," the ad claims.

"When Trump rolled over for the Chinese, he took their word for it. Trump praised the Chinese 15 times in January and February as the coronavirus spread across the world," the ad argues. It shows tweets from the president referring positively to China's handling of the pandemic.

Earlier in April, the Trump campaign released a controversial clip of Biden meeting with a range of Chinese officials. The ad claimed the former vice president "stands up for China."

New ad: Trump praised China's coronavirus response while refusing to mount the one we needed at home. Now the outbreak is the worst public health and economic crisis of our lifetimes. Joe Biden warned him not to take their word. (https://t.co/qJXsw3eKGG) pic.twitter.com/XWNnYx4GAI

— Andrew Bates (@AndrewBatesNC) April 18, 2020

However, the video was strongly criticized as it included Biden with Gary Locke, a third-generation Chinese American who previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to China. Locke and other critics said that the video falsely suggested he was a representative of China.

"Hate crimes and discrimination against the Asian American community are on the rise. And the Trump team is making it worse. Asian Americans are Americans. Period," Locke said in a statement posted to Twitter on April 10.

Trump has faced significant criticism within the U.S. for what many Americans see as his slow response to the coronavirus pandemic. The president repeatedly downplayed the threat of the novel virus, suggesting it would just "disappear" and referring to the concern about the outbreak as a "new hoax" from the Democrats. Meanwhile, the federal government failed to rapidly roll out testing, making it next to impossible to track the virus' rapid spread.

Chinese officials covered up the news of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, silenced doctors and others trying to alert the world, and then falsely accused the U.S. military of starting the pandemic.

The president and Republicans have attempted to shift the blame to China. But critics point to early warnings that were disregarded and the president's repeated public dismissal of the virus, even as the number of confirmed cases within the U.S. began to grow.

Meanwhile, Biden has come under fire for criticizing the Trump administration's January 31 announcement of travel restrictions on foreign nationals who were in China 14 days prior to their attempted entry into the United States. The former vice president tweeted on February 1: "We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science--not Donald Trump's record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering."

As of Sunday morning, the U.S. had over 939,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to a tracker updated by Johns Hopkins University. Of those, nearly 54,000 people have died while nearly 106,000 have already recovered. Globally, the U.S. has by far the highest number of confirmed cases, with Spain coming in distant second with nearly 224,000 people infected.

This article has been updated with a statement from a spokesperson for Trump's re-election campaign.