Peter Navarro: Trump call to slow Covid-19 testing was 'tongue-in-cheek'

By Martin Pengelly, Tom Lutz and agencies

White House adviser Peter Navarro claimed Donald Trump was being “tongue-in-cheek” when he claimed to have asked public health officials to slow down coronavirus testing.

Trump made the remark at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday evening.

On Sunday, Navarro also told CNN’s Jake Tapper he “did not hear me wrong” when he claimed without foundation that the “virus was a product of the Chinese Communist party”.

“China created this pandemic,” the trade adviser said. “They hid the virus. They created that virus. And they sent over hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens here to spread that around and around the world.

“Whether they did that on purpose, that’s an open question. But that’s a fact.”

Experts agree Covid-19 originated in Wuhan province, most likely in a market where live animals are sold. Trump and allies have sought to blame China for the spread of the virus, some advancing the conspiracy theory that it was created in a military lab.

Navarro told CNN: “In 2006, in a book I wrote called The Coming China Wars. On page 150, I predicted that China would create a viral pandemic that could possibly kill millions.

“Why did I do that at the time? Because the whole structure of that authoritarian, repressive, non-transparent society is geared towards giving us exactly what they given us, which is a pandemic.”

As the Guardian reported in April, Navarro “was first recruited by Trump because he wrote a string of books about the Chinese strategic threat – one called Death by China – despite having spent almost no time in the country and having no grasp of the language.

“Five of Navarro’s books cited a China hand with a particularly pithy turn of phrase called Ron Vara, who turned out not to exist. The name is an anagram of Navarro and the imaginary expert operated as an alter ego, confirming the author’s views.”

Navarro’s latest comments about China were as incendiary as Trump’s remarks about testing were, to many, alarming. Experts have sought to dampen fears that the US may face a second wave of infections, but only because the first isn’t over.

“When you have 20,000-plus infections per day, how can you talk about a second wave?” Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told the Associated Press. “We’re in the first wave. Let’s get out of the first wave before you have a second wave.”

According to Johns Hopkins University, the US has confirmed more than 2.2m cases and nearly 120,000 Covid-19 deaths. The real numbers are believed to be higher.

New cases have shown sudden rises in several states, but not just due to testing – many states, most Republican-led are seeking to reopen from lockdown. The wearing of masks and other public health guidelines has become a political fault line, with many Americans refusing to follow such advice.

Saturday’s rally in Tulsa took place amid climbing case numbers in Oklahoma and against pleas from local health officials not to stage the event at all. Six campaign staffers tested positive, but in his speech Trump said the “bad part” of widespread testing is that it leads to logging more cases.

The president had already used racist language aimed at China, referring to Covid-19 as “kung flu”. He then described testing as a “double-edged sword”. The US had now tested 25 million people, far more than other countries, Trump said, adding: “When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases. So I said to my people slow the testing down.”

Navarro insisted Trump’s comment was “tongue in cheek” and made in a “light moment”. To Tapper’s contention that “a deadly pandemic, where almost 120,000 Americans” have died might not be “really a good subject for a light moment”, Navarro said: “He takes that absolutely seriously.”

On Sunday, Oklahoma reported a record number of new cases, at 478. The state’s previous record of 450 new cases in a day, was set on Thursday.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden criticized Trump for putting politics ahead of the safety and health of Americans. House speaker Nancy Pelosi said the president was “ethically unfit and intellectually unprepared to lead”.

Also on CNN, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a potential Biden running mate, said: “This is no time to joke. Even if it were a joke, which it was not, it was an inappropriate joke. Do you think the people, the 120,000 families out there who are missing their loved ones thought it was funny?”

Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf told NBC’s Meet the Press the White House coronavirus taskforce is working with governors to make sure the US “can open up this economy in a safe and reasonable way”.

“I think that’s what we’re seeing,” he said.

Wolf told CBS’s Face the Nation the task force was “on top of all of these outbreaks”, including in Arizona, Texas, Florida and other states “having hot spots”. The administration, he said, had sent medical equipment, staff and personnel to assist with reopening efforts.

Bottoms also condemned Trump for staging his rally in Tulsa, the site of a historic race massacre, after a month of protests and civil unrest over racism and police brutality, subjects he skipped entirely during his speech.

“That rally was an embarrassment,” she said. “It was absolutely what the nation does not need right now. He did not speak about healing. He did not recognize any of the racial tensions that are happening across our country.

“Instead, he does what he always does. He continues to try and divide us and really inflames the worst in people. And so I just hope that this is a good sign that the country is moving on from him.”