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Cui Tiankai. Photo: Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

The State Department is commending China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, for distancing himself from a coronavirus conspiracy theory that the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry has been pushing.

Driving the news: "We welcome Ambassador Cui's comments calling the Chinese Foreign Ministry's statement a 'crazy thing' that blamed the U.S. Army for the #coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan," the State Department's spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tweeted on Tuesday.

  • "Saving lives is more important than saving face."

Why this matters: China's pushing of this conspiracy theory has inflamed what is already an extremely fraught relationship between the superpowers amid a global pandemic. Ortagus' tweet, coupled with Cui's more conciliatory statements in an interview with "Axios on HBO," may signal the end of the fight over this conspiracy theory.

The backstory: In a rare interview, Cui 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.

  • 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.

Reality check: 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.

Go deeper: More highlights from the Chinese ambassador's "Axios on HBO" interview

Go deeper

California wildfire explodes in size, destroys historic town

Battalion Chief Sergio Mora looks on as the Dixie fire burns through downtown Greenville, Calif. on Aug. 4, 2021. Photo: Josh EdelsonAFP via Getty Images

The small Sierra town of Greenville, California, was heavily damaged on Wednesday night into early Thursday as the Dixie Fire surged northward amid high winds, extremely dry air and hot temperatures.

The latest: The Dixie Fire, California's biggest blaze, continued to threaten communities in Plumas County into Thursday night, as more mandatory evacuation orders were issued in the region.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Top labor leader Richard Trumka dies unexpectedly at 72

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who led the largest federation of unions in the country for over a decade, has died at 72.

The big picture: Trumka began working as a coal miner in 1968 and would go on to dedicate his life to the labor movement, including as president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO beginning in 2009.

Biden signs bill awarding Congressional Gold Medals to officers who responded to Jan. 6 attack

President Biden, joined by Vice President Harris, lawmakers and members of law enforcement and their families, signs legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to law enforcement in the Rose Garden. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Biden signed legislation awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Why it matters: The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress' "highest expression of national appreciation," notes the New York Times.