President Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo love to label Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.”
But Kelly Craft, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, is calling on Washington to work hand in hand with China and end the “blame game” of trying to hold Beijing responsible for the pandemic.
Not only that, Craft has high praise for Nancy Pelosi’s contributions to the battle against the disease, even as her boss denounces the House speaker as “a sick puppy [with] a lot of problems” for criticizing his management of the national response to the deadly disease sweeping the globe.
Will Craft end up in hot water with a president famous for freezing out officials who dare to disagree with him? Or is she heralding a Trump administration shift in tone as China flies planeloads of badly needed medical supplies to the US? Or maybe she is simply trying to usher in some kinder, gentler rhetoric during this difficult period and hoping the president learns to appreciate it.
It would be easy to say here that only time will tell. But with this administration, we may never know the answer — even if Ambassador Craft publishes a memoir in 2025.
For the moment, it is a bizarre turn of events. Less than a week before Craft spoke, Pompeo on March 25 was busy quashing an effort by the G-7 countries — the group includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan as well as the US — to issue a joint statement declaring the need for a transparent global fight to defeat the pandemic.
The statement could be issued, Pompeo insisted, only if it referred to Covid-19 as “the Wuhan virus.”
“Every one of the nations that was at that meeting this morning was deeply aware of the disinformation campaign that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in to try and deflect from what has really taken place here,” he told reporters after the failure of the talks, which were conducted via video conferencing.
At the same time, Washington was effectively blocking the 15-nation Security Council from meeting on an international plan to counter the pandemic. Again, the administration insisted that any resulting resolution or statement identify Wuhan, China, as the virus’s birthplace. Trump has blamed the slow-off-the-mark US response to the pandemic on China’s early efforts to deny the severity of the disease. (Seattle soon proved otherwise.)
Then Craft agreed to a March 29 appearance on Fox News, which the Trump-adoring cable network touted as her “first American television interview” since she was sworn in as UN ambassador on Sept. 12.
China has “culpability, obviously, of lying about it [the pandemic], not doing enough, silencing their doctor,” veteran Fox correspondent Eric Shawn, a longtime UN skeptic, started out, reflecting Trump’s attempts to evade blame for his late start in recognizing the threat posed by Covid-19. “What should the consequences for the Chinese be?”
But Craft, interviewed by video from an undisclosed location, did not take the bait.
“You know, Eric, this is not the time to have a blame game,” she said. “What this is time to do is to understand that this isn’t our first pandemic, and it will not be our last. I think that we need to learn from the mistakes that China made, we need to be more transparent, and more thoughtful with following through with information. We also need to learn what China has done that has worked, and build upon that.”
“We as a nation have come together and we understand the importance of bringing everyone into the fold because the US cannot do this alone and . . . this virus has no borders, it sees no boundaries,” she went on. “We have situations, crises, all over the world that are not going to be put on hold because of the pandemic, so it’s been very important at the UN that we set aside blame and that we work together and try to mitigate this virus.”
Well, what about Pelosi, Shawn asked, again inviting Craft to pounce on one of the president’s favorite punching bags. Hadn’t the House speaker “delayed actions, made the pandemic worse?”
Again, Craft demurred.
“Speaker Pelosi has also been instrumental in also being part of this team . . . and I think it’s really important that we focus on the positive, and the fact that President Trump has brought this country together,” she responded, offering the boss a dose of the steady praise he demands of all his appointees.
Trump did not exactly get Craft’s message, however.
That very morning, Pelosi had sharply criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic, telling CNN: “We should be taking every precaution. What the president — his denial at the beginning was deadly.”
“As the president fiddles, people are dying. And we just have to take every precaution,” she said.
Trump’s response the next morning was particularly harsh. “Well, you know it’s a sad thing. Look, she’s a sick puppy in my opinion, she really is. She’s got a lot of problems, and that is a horrible thing to say,” he said in a call-in to Fox, insisting it was “a fact” that he got “a lot of accolades” for his leadership on the pandemic.
There was a telling moment in Craft’s interview with Shawn when he posed another question she was uniquely placed to answer. “Will the Security Council be taking this up?”
Craft left that query unanswered; the Council, in fact, remained deeply divided, as April began, over whether to formally discuss the pandemic as it continues to meet virtually on other matters.
In global crises, the Security Council and the UN typically play crucial roles in bringing the world together, serving as a framework for an international response, and fashioning a strategy in the name of the UN’s 193 members and two observer members, the Vatican and the State of Palestine.
Craft did go out of her way in the Fox interview to echo the March 23 appeal of Secretary-General António Guterres for a global cease-fire in all conflicts to enable nations to better counter the pandemic’s effects.
“Where there is a vacuum, where there is conflict, there will be another virus, and that is really my main concern at the moment is to try to mitigate this virus in areas of conflict,” she said, albeit without mentioning Guterres by name.
Guterres renewed his appeal on April 3. “I call on all those that can make a difference to make that difference: to urge and pressure combatants around the world to put down their arms,” he said. “The COVID-19 storm is now coming to all these theatres of conflict. The virus has shown how swiftly it can move across borders, devastate countries and upend lives. The worst is yet to come.”
Nine of the 10 elected members of the Security Council are requesting a meeting on the pandemic and have asked Guterres to address the body, to possibly pressure it to get its act together and convene to consider emergency action on Covid-19. As of April 6, the Council is planning to have a virtual meeting on the pandemic on April 9, according to a diplomat close to the discussions. In addition, a draft resolution, led by Tunisia, to address the pandemic is circulating among the Council members.
On April 2, the UN General Assembly approved its first resolution on the pandemic, calling for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the viral disease, although Britain, China and the US were not among the sponsors. A rival measure, sponsored by Russia, failed to gain consensus backing.
But Craft’s silence on possible Security Council action heightened fears that as long as Trump is in charge of US foreign policy, it will take superheavy diplomatic lifting for the Council to act on the crisis.
On April 3, the White House said that Trump spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and discussed convening the permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — of the Security Council to increase UN cooperation in fighting the coronavirus. And on April 6, US Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Craft, urging her to take a leadership role in the Security Council to pass a resolution on the pandemic.
If China and Russia want to ship surplus medical supplies to suffering American communities, that’s great. But helping to craft a coordinated international approach to a deadly global problem? Maybe don’t hold your breath.
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This analysis was updated on April 6 to reflect new information on the Security Council actions regarding the pandemic and Senator Menendez’s (D-NJ) letter.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.