Mar 22, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops.

🇨🇳 Tonight on "Axios on HBO" (6pm ET/PT): An intense interview with China's ambassador to the U.S. ... Sen. Ted Cruz talks from self-quarantine ... plus the CEOs of Microsoft and Carnival, and a rare sit-down with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

  • Catch up later on HBO GO.

Situational awareness: Senator Rand Paul has tested positive for coronavirus. He is the first senator to contract the disease.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,941 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Top Chinese official disowns U.S. military lab conspiracy

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

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 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 tonight, "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: Watch the clip and read the full transcript of my interview with Cui.

2. Highlights from Chinese ambassador's "Axios on HBO" interview

The interview had tense moments. At one point, during an exchange about allegations of torture from former Muslim detainees in Xinjiang camps, Cui said it would not be productive to keep discussing such matters.

  • At another point, he accused "Axios on HBO" of insulting the Chinese Communist Party and equated the Party with the Chinese people.
  • Amid extended questioning over the timeline of Chinese authorities suppressing doctors and censoring crucial public health information that could have saved lives, Cui said, "What happened to Dr. Li and his colleagues now is under investigation by the central government."
  • Update: Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor, who was reprimanded for sounding the alarm on the potential of a deadly coronavirus outbreak, has been exonerated, per Politico.

On the expulsion of American journalists from China:

  • "Axios on HBO": "I read that column in the Wall Street Journal and it didn't seem to me that there was anything that would violate a law in it. It was really criticizing...
  • Cui: "That article was very insulting on the entire Chinese nation.
  • "Axios on HBO": "I'm sure people will disagree, Mr. Ambassador. ... The question is whether it's a good idea to expel reporters because of something you disagree with."
  • Cui: "Maybe the first question you have to ask, whether it's a good idea to write such an article at all."

On the disappearances of Chinese citizen journalists who were reporting on the coronavirus from inside Wuhan:

  • "Axios on HBO": "Where is the citizen journalist Chen Qiushi? He was doing some of the early videos from inside Wuhan that were showing the response to the virus and the chaos that was happening inside Wuhan."
  • Cui: "I have not heard of this person."
  • "Axios on HBO": "Really? Chen Qiushi?"
  • Cui: "Why not?"
  • "Axios on HBO": "Well you were asked about him on "Face the Nation" on February 9."
  • Cui: "No, I was not asked about any particular journalist."
  • "Axios on HBO": "You were. ... I watched the clip. Margaret Brennan named Chen Qiushi."
  • Cui: "But I did not know him then. I don't know him now."
  • "Axios on HBO": "Well, it's a month later. Weren't you curious to find out who he was?"
  • Cui: "We have 1.4 billion people back in China. How can I learn everything about everybody?"

Bonus: Watch Cui defend China's decision to expel the Wall Street Journal reporters and our exchange about the disappeared Chinese journalists.

Go deeper: Read Axios' China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian's timeline of the Chinese government's cover-up in the early weeks of the coronavirus.

3. Behind the scenes: Trump's dash for cash

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

After the press hammered President Trump for a dismissive and dysfunctional response that wasted precious time and let the coronavirus spread undetected through the U.S., he is now eager to spend whatever it takes to bail out the economy, according to White House officials.

  • "He feels he won't get punished for overreacting," said a senior administration official. "The bigger the better."
  • The official said that ballooning the $23 trillion national debt has never been much of a concern to Trump and certainly isn't now.

The bottom line: Aides say Trump's instinctive view is that no coronavirus check is too big. He's searching for dramatic, quick-fix interventions.

  • We'll start to see the policy effects of that mindset this week.
4. Senate's trillion-dollar coronavirus bill hits speed bump

Socially distanced apart, Mitch McConnell and Steven Mnuchin attend a meeting with a select group of senators and Trump administration officials, March 20. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After days of intense negotiations, talks between Capitol Hill leaders and the White House over a Phase 3 stimulus package to fight the coronavirus broke down on Sunday, leading to a failed procedural vote meant to move the bill forward, reports Axios' Alayna Treene.

Why it matters: The emergency legislation, which is expected to be one of the largest and most expensive stimulus packages in American history (it could grow beyond $2 trillion), would deliver desperately needed aid to American families, small businesses and corporations hit hardest by the virus.

  • But Democrats say Republicans aren't giving workers enough for them to support the costly measure, diminishing hopes that a final vote would take place on Monday.

The latest: Senate Majority Leader McConnell led a meeting this morning with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to hammer out the sticking points.

  • But Democrats left the meeting protesting that the bill is a corporate slush fund that doesn't do enough to protect workers from layoffs, gives the Treasury too much power to make its own decisions, and doesn't provide any money for state and local governments.
  • McConnell then pushed a 3pm cloture vote on a motion to proceed with the legislation to 6pm, giving them more time to negotiate.
  • After a series of additional talks, the vote failed along party lines, forcing the group back to the negotiating table.

What's next: McConnell will continue to work with Democratic leaders and the White House to reach a deal that will get enough Democratic votes to pass.

  • Members of the House, who have been on recess for over a week, will fly back to Washington to vote on the bill shortly after it passes the Senate.
  • There have already been early talks of a Phase 4 deal, according to senior Senate and House aides.
  • There are no specifics yet, but Mnuchin said this morning that the legislation would provide relief for 10–12 weeks — a time frame that falls short of expectations laid out by public health officials for how long the virus will persist.

Go deeper: What's inside the latest version of the Phase 3 deal

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The House will remain on recess until a vote on the Phase 3 deal is announced. They will be notified 24 hours ahead so they can arrange travel back to Washington, Alayna writes.

The Senate will resume negotiations on their stimulus bill.

  • Several Senate aides tell Axios they expect senators will fly back to their home states for an extended recess after a final vote on the measure is completed, but that has not yet been decided.
  • Meanwhile, calls to implement a remote voting system increased with urgency today after Sen. Rand Paul became the first senator to test positive for the virus.
  • Several other senators — including Mike Lee, Mitt Romney, Rick Scott and Cory Gardner — are under self-quarantines after being exposed to the disease.

The White House did not provide a copy of President Trump's schedule, but administration officials say the daily televised briefings from the coronavirus task force will continue.

  • Meanwhile, go deeper for Alayna's inside look into how Mark Meadows is immersing himself in one of the most extraordinary job training sessions an incoming White House chief of staff can get: how to manage thousands of staffers — and Trump — in the middle of a pandemic.
6. 1 high-tech thing: Singapore's Big Brother fights against COVID-19

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The government of Singapore is tracing the coronavirus in ways that are simultaneously impressive and terrifying for those who worry about high-tech dictatorship.

The latest example: On Saturday, a friend living there received a WhatsApp message from the Singaporean government with instructions to download a new coronavirus tracing app called "TraceTogether."

  • The app uses Bluetooth to help the government track down and notify people who have come into close contact with somebody infected with the coronavirus.

How it works, per ChannelNewsAsia (CNA):

  • Singaporeans download TraceTogether from the App Store, enter their cellphone number and consent to their numbers being "stored in a secure registry."
  • They switch on Bluetooth and push notifications. According to the Singaporean government, the app attaches a random ID to your cell number.
  • "It then uses Bluetooth to detect other users who come within two to five meters of you and records their random IDs internally," per CNA.
  • If a user of the app tests positive for the coronavirus, Singapore's Ministry of Health will have them send their app logs to the government.
  • The Singaporean government will then "decrypt the random IDs to determine the mobile numbers of my close contacts." This means that Singaporeans won't have to rely on their memories to recall whether they've had contact with somebody who later tests positive for the virus.

Why it matters: Singapore has had extraordinary success, so far, in controlling the coronavirus. It only recently reported its first deaths from the virus.

Between the lines: "This app is a high-tech form of contact tracing — identify an infected person, then immediately identify who they might have infected, test those people, on down the line," writes Axios' Sam Baker.

  • "Testing is the first and essential step to making it work. That's why we can't do it. Testing plus contact tracing is the right thing to do in any outbreak, it's what worked in Singapore and South Korea."
  • "There are ways to do it that are not incompatible with freedom but we can't do it here in the United States because testing sucks so much here."

The other side: Some of the government's techniques would be difficult to implement in a free society. Over many decades, Singaporeans have become comfortable unquestioningly following directives from their dictatorial government.

  • For example, Singapore's government didn't just recommend that people stay in quarantine for 14 days after they return from overseas. Instead, the authorities enforce their "stay-at-home" notices by sending text messages to residents throughout the day. When they receive the texts, Singaporeans are required to share their GPS location with the government, per CNA.
  • If Singaporeans don't comply with stay-at-home notices, they could be prosecuted under Section 21A of the Infectious Diseases Act. "First-time offenders are liable for a fine of up to S$10,000, jail of up to six months, or both," per CNA. "Repeat offenders face double the penalties."
Jonathan Swan