Republican attorneys general from 18 states are pressing Congress to investigate the Chinese government's role in the coronavirus outbreak, telling legislators that the pandemic has "wreaked havoc" on their states.
The attorneys general, led by South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson, signed a letter demanding congressional hearings about "the origins of COVID-19 and efforts by the communist Chinese government to deceive the international community." The letter was addressed to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, including Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Tex.), the head of the new Republican-led China Task Force.
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"Reports suggest that the communist Chinese government willfully and knowingly concealed information about the severity of the virus while simultaneously stockpiling personal protective equipment," the attorneys general wrote. "The Chinese government, aided by the World Health Organization, appears to have intentionally misled the world over the last 6 months."
The letter will further embolden China hawks in Congress, most of them Republicans, to hold China accountable for its handling of the pandemic. Republican leadership has already responded to those calls with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) unveiling on Thursday the China Task Force, an all-encompassing body that covers 14 different committee jurisdictions to consider "a wide range of China-related issues" from influence operations targeting the United States to the origins of the coronavirus outbreak.
Some state law enforcement officials have already launched aggressive efforts to make China pay for its role in the crisis. Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt, who has also signed onto the letter, is already suing the Chinese government for damages. Mississippi has pledged to do the same. While their efforts face an uphill battle because foreign governments are typically protected from legal action, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and other congressional Republicans have already introduced legislation to strip China of sovereign immunity.
"I represent 6 million Missourians. We've got over 6,000 cases now, over 200 deaths. It's a tremendous impact," Schmitt told the Washington Free Beacon in April. "The human toll of people losing loved ones, not being able to visit family suffering from the virus, [and] not attending funerals. That's not even mentioning the economic impact. People living paycheck to paycheck can't feed their families now. All because the Chinese government lied about this."
Wilson, the attorney general for South Carolina, conceded that state governments have limited options available to them to hold China accountable. Therefore, he said he organized this letter to signal that states want the federal government to look at "every available remedy" for the coronavirus pandemic, rather than just turning to American courts.
"A singular lawsuit by state against another foreign sovereign—that’s only going to get you so far," he said. "We want to make sure that our elected representatives in Congress are looking at every available remedy available to this country into their respective states. That includes not just legal remedies, but economic and diplomatic sanctions."
Since early March, Republican China hawks including Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) have faced pushback from Democratic colleagues, some of whom claim that efforts to hold China accountable are racist. Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.), for example, was forced in March to rescind his support for a bill condemning China's coronavirus response after Democrats condemned the legislation. Democratic willingness to scrutinize China has only cooled as the death toll and unemployment rolls have swelled. The China Task Force, created as a bipartisan body, now boasts an all-Republican roster after Democrats pulled out at the last minute.
Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), a leading critic of Beijing on Capitol Hill, accused Democrats of playing political games with the deadly pandemic—which could hinder the response to future outbreaks. Congress, he said, should play a vital role in "learning how the COVID-19 pandemic began or how to prevent another one from happening."
"If it wasn’t obvious before, this pandemic has made crystal clear that China is the biggest economic and military existential threat to the United States, but Democrats would rather play partisan games than address it," Banks said.