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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Biden’s Misleading Ad About Sending Experts to China

An ad for Joe Biden’s campaign hammers President Donald Trump for failing to send U.S. health experts to China to investigate the novel coronavirus. But the ad fails to mention that the administration tried several times soon after the outbreak, although without success, and an international team with two U.S. members was admitted in mid-February.

The narrator of the ad, called “Unprepared,” says, “Biden told Trump he should insist on having American health experts on the ground in China.”

It then plays an excerpt from the Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 25 in Charleston, South Carolina, in which Biden says, “I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, ‘We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on.'”

The day after the debate, during a CNN town hall, Biden said, “What I would do were I president now, I would not be taking China’s word for it. I would insist that China allow our scientists in to make a hard determination of how it started, where it’s from, how far along it is. Because that is not happening now.” This is not in the ad.

Later in the ad, the narrator says, “Trump never got a CDC team on the ground in China.” That is true. But the ad doesn’t mention that in mid-February — before the former vice president’s remarks in the debate — two Americans were part of a World Health Organization team that visited China, including Wuhan, where the pandemic broke out late last year.

The 25-member team, which visited China for nine days from Feb. 16 to Feb. 24, included one official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another from the National Institutes of Health. The team issued a 40-page report on Feb. 28 — about two weeks before the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic.

According to the Biden campaign, the ad is aimed at the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida, and runs statewide there on Facebook and Instagram. The ad is also running on YouTube in some markets in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Campaigns can target online ads to voters in specific states based on users’ account information, such as demographic information and search history.)

All of those states will be critical in determining the next president.

Having American officials in place to take a first-hand look has emerged as an issue of growing importance with widespread concern that China was not candid about the scope of the novel coronavirus problem.

As we have written before, Biden was wrong last month when he asserted that the Trump administration had made “no effort” to get American health officials to the place where the coronavirus began.

“[W]hen we were talking … early on in this crisis, we said — I said, among others, that, you know, you should get into China, get our experts there, we have the best in the world, get them in so we know what’s actually happening,” Biden, the presumptive  Democratic presidential nominee, said at a CNN virtual town hall on March 27. “There was no effort to do that.”

But that wasn’t the case.

In fact, the CDC tried to get into China just one week after China reported the outbreak to the WHO on Dec. 31, 2019.

“On January 6, we offered to send a CDC team to China that could assist with these public health efforts,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a Jan. 28 press conference. “I reiterated that offer when I spoke to China’s Minister of Health on Monday, and it was reiterated again via the World Health Organization today. We are urging China: More cooperation and transparency are the most important steps you can take toward a more effective response.”

More than a week later, Azar said again at a Feb. 7 press conference that “our longstanding offer to send world-class experts to China to assist remains on the table.” 

At a briefing of the White House coronavirus task force last month, Trump said that he brought the issue up with Chinese President Xi Jinping personally.

Trump, March 22: And I did ask him whether or not we could send some people, and they didn’t want that — out of pride.  I think, really, out of pride.  They don’t want — they don’t want us sending people into China, to help them.  You know, China is a strong country.  They have — they have their scientists and they have their doctors — very smart.  A lot of people.

And, you know, but I did discuss that about sending our people in.  And, they didn’t really respond.  We went again; they didn’t respond.

We cannot confirm whether Trump did bring it up with the Chinese leader or, if he did, how hard he pushed Xi to admit Americans. But according to the president, he did make the offer, on more than one occasion. And it is by no means certain that insistence would have led the Chinese to change their minds.

When we asked about the ad, Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin said, “Vice President Biden warned Donald Trump against taking the Chinese government at its word on the coronavirus, and repeatedly called on Trump to insist to President Xi that he allow American experts on the ground so we could determine the facts for ourselves. Instead of heeding Biden’s call, Trump blithely bought the Chinese government’s spin — ignoring warnings from our own intelligence community — and wasted precious weeks praising their response instead of preparing America to combat the virus.”

Gwin did not address the fact that the Trump administration did send two of its top health officials to China in mid-February.

It seems clear that China-related issues will play a big role in the upcoming presidential campaign. As we have written, the Trump campaign on April 9 launched a misleading attack ad on YouTube that misrepresents Biden’s statements on the Trump administration’s travel restrictions regarding China. The ad attracted attention because it leaves the false impression that former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, a Chinese-American, is a Chinese official.

The ad says that Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was opposed to the travel restrictions — the Biden campaign says he was for them — and generally strives to portray Biden as far too soft on the Chinese regime, using some of Biden’s positive statements about the Chinese.

Much of the Biden campaign’s new ad focuses on positive statements Trump has made about China and its handling of the pandemic. And it is true that Trump has repeatedly praised the Chinese.

For example, at a business roundtable in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 25, the president said, “China is working very, very hard. I have spoken to President Xi, and they’re working very hard.  And if you know anything about him, I think he’ll be in pretty good shape.  They’re — they’ve had a rough patch, and I think right now they have it — it looks like they’re getting it under control more and more.”

But Trump also has on occasion criticized China for its lack of transparency, a fact that is not addressed in the Biden ad.

For example, at a White House coronavirus briefing on March 21, the president said, “I wish they could have told us earlier about what was going on inside. We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly, but I wish they could have told us earlier about it because we could have come up with a solution…. China was very secretive, okay? Very, very secretive. And that’s unfortunate.”

At the end of the ad, Biden addresses the travel restrictions on China that the Trump administration announced on Jan. 31.

While Trump “brags about” the restrictions, the ad says, in fact 40,000 people arrived from China after the restrictions went into effect. That claim is based on this New York Times story.  As we have reported, while Trump repeatedly calls what he imposed a “travel ban,” that is a misnomer. The policy prohibits non-U.S. citizens, other than the immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled to China within the last two weeks from entering the U.S. In addition to those family members, American citizens weren’t covered by the restrictions.

To sum up, we find Biden’s claim about getting U.S. health experts into China misleading. While Biden is right that the U.S. didn’t get a CDC team into China, the Trump administration made efforts to do so, and there were two Americans on the WHO team that went to China in February.