In a rare interview, China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told "Axios on HBO" that he stands by his belief that it's "crazy" to spread rumors about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the United States.

Why it matters: Cui called this exact conspiracy theory "crazy" more than a month ago on CBS' "Face the Nation." But that was before the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, began publicly promoting the conspiracy.

  • The fact that Cui distanced himself from his colleague's statements sends an important signal from the top Chinese government official in the U.S.
  • Top Trump officials, including the president, have expressed their outrage at Chinese officials for trying to spread the theory that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to China. The State Department even called in Cui to take him to task.

The big picture: There's not a credible epidemiologist in the world who has shown evidence that the virus originated anywhere but China. Scientists believe the virus emerged from animals sold in a market in Wuhan, where the first cases of the disease were discovered.

Driving the news: In our interview, which aired Sunday, "Axios on HBO" quoted back to the ambassador a statement he made on "Face the Nation" Feb. 9: "There are people who are saying that these virus [sic] are coming from some- some military lab, not of China, maybe in the United States. How can we believe all these crazy things?"

  • Cui told "Axios on HBO" he stands by that statement. "That's my position then and that's my position now."
  • Cui added that we should leave it to the scientists to describe where the virus originated and said it's "very harmful" for journalists and diplomats to speculate about its origins.
  • He also blamed people in Washington for spreading unfounded rumors — an apparent shot at Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has raised questions about whether the virus came from a biochemical lab in Wuhan, China. (There is no evidence for this, either, as Cotton acknowledged.)

Between the lines: Asked whether Cui's Foreign Ministry colleague had any evidence to support the conspiracy theory, Cui replied, with a slight smile, "maybe you could go and ask him."

Key exchange:

  • "Axios on HBO": "Well have you asked him, you're the ambassador?"
  • Cui: "No, I'm here representing my head of state and my government, not any particular individual."
  • "Axios on HBO": "Does he [Zhao] speak for the Chinese government, or do you?"
  • Cui: "I am the representative of China in the United States."
  • "Axios on HBO": "OK, so we shouldn't take his words literally ... we shouldn't take them as a representation of the Chinese government, even though he's the spokesman?"
  • Cui: "Well you could try to interpret somebody else's statement. I'm not in the position, and I don't have the responsibility, to explain everybody's view to you."

What's next: "Axios on HBO" asked Cui what he made of Trump calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus."

  • Cui said the World Health Organization, when it names new viruses, takes care to avoid connecting the virus to a particular group of people so as to "avoid stigma."
  • "I hope the WHO rule will be followed," Cui said.

Go deeper

Coronavirus cases rise in 25 states

Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

New coronavirus infections rose over the past week in half the country.

Why it matters: The U.S. remains largely unable or unwilling to control the spread of the virus.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 33,976,447 — Total deaths: 1,014,266 — Total recoveries: 23,644,023Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 7,233,945 — Total deaths: 206,959 — Total recoveries: 2,840,688 — Total tests: 103,939,667Map.
  3. Education: School-aged children now make up 10% of all U.S COVID-19 cases.
  4. Health: Moderna says its coronavirus vaccine won't be ready until 2021
  5. Travel: CDC: 3,689 COVID-19 or coronavirus-like cases found on cruise ships in U.S. waters — Airlines begin mass layoffs while clinging to hope for federal aid
  6. Business: Real-time data show economy's rebound slowing but still going.
  7. Sports: Steelers-Titans NFL game delayed after coronavirus outbreak.
Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Trump signs stopgap bill to prevent government shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and President Trump arrives at the U.S. Capitol in March. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Trump signed a bill to extend current levels of government funding after funding expired briefly, White House spokesperson Judd Deere confirmed early Thursday.

Why it matters: The move averts a government shutdown before the Nov. 3 election. The Senate on Wednesday passed the legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 11, by a vote of 84-10.

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