As his colleagues spent January engrossed by impeachment drama, Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) was growing increasingly worried by the stories coming out of Wuhan.
At home over MLK Day weekend, Cotton pored over East Asian and medical news sources, growing more and more concerned. As the Senate resumed what he called its “partisan impeachment of the president,” he was telling his staff to start planning and was stepping out of marathon sessions to lobby the administration to take action before the virus spread.
Cotton’s self-positioning as the Senate’s first corona-hawk earned him plenty of abuse from the media. Two months on, however, as the virus burns through the country, the senator who saw this all coming could be running a victory lap. Instead, he’s kept a steely-eyed focus on combating the virus at home—and on responding to the Chinese deceit that he thinks ignited the crisis.
“As we get through this pandemic, there has to be an accounting and a reckoning for China,” Cotton told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview. “Because China, through its dishonesty and corruption, turned what could have been a manageable local outbreak into a global pandemic that will ultimately cost not only our people, but the world, trillions and trillions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives.”
Cotton has already put his legislative money where his mouth is. He introduced a bill two weeks ago that would aim to onshore America’s pharmaceutical supply chain by banning the federal government from buying Chinese-made drugs.
He and Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) also recently debuted a proposal to permit the president to sanction foreign actors who conceal or distort information about “public health emergencies of international concern.” The bill is named for Dr. Li Wenliang, an early coronavirus whistleblower who faced sanctions from the Chinese government for his warning before he succumbed to the disease. (Cotton also cosponsored a resolution honoring Li.)
For Cotton, onshoring is just the start of the post-coronavirus “reckoning,” which will entail a full overhaul of America’s relationship with its third-largest trading partner, a country Cotton calls “our main geopolitical enemy.”
“We should reassess that relationship in every sector of imports. It’s one thing to import cheap toys or lawn furniture from China,” he said. “But if you get much higher in the value chain, it’s time to reassess it.”
It was dishonesty from the Chinese government that first tipped Cotton off, he says, to the seriousness of the disease. The PRC claimed it had the virus under control, reporting the disease had not spread from human-to-human while silencing dissenting laboratories.
Its actions, however, told a different story, with a province-wide, and then almost nationwide, shutdown enforced by draconian measures like sealing infected apartment buildings from the outside. The contrast between China’s messages and actions, Cotton said, “told me that this was a much more serious virus than was being portrayed by China, and I started following it closely.”
He also started agitating for the White House to act fast. Cotton pressed for a travel ban on China more than a week before President Donald Trump implemented it—whenever he saw White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, he would simply point down, signifying “get the planes down.” He told the Free Beacon that while national security officials were in agreement, Trump’s economic advisers were on the fence, as were public health officials—”Frankly, a lot of these public health bureaucracies don’t like to shut down travel.”
Cotton’s efforts, particularly aided by Senate colleagues Hawley and Rick Scott (R., Fla.), eventually yielded results. On Jan. 31, the administration announced it would ban travel from China to the United States; Trump called Cotton the night before to say the senator would be “very pleased” with his announcement.
By then, however, the SARS-CoV-2 virus had spread to Europe and then to the United States, forcing the nationwide lockdowns that have put 10 million Americans out of work over the past two weeks and left millions more sheltered at home. Cotton emphasized that Americans need to be following the guidance of the White House’s coronavirus task force.
“It is going to get worse in the days and weeks ahead,” he said. “But if we all do our very best to practice good hygiene and social distancing, we can arrest the spread of the virus and hope to get the economy back on its feet while getting the virus under control.”
What Cotton does not believe—in contrast to many in the media—are the claims by the Chinese government that they have the disease under control. Asked about the news that the U.S. intelligence community believes China was lying about its coronavirus fatalities, Cotton declined to comment on classified information, but added, “I don’t need the intelligence community to tell me that China is lying.”
“It’s simply what the Chinese Communist Party does,” he said. “They lie incessantly about all topics, and they’ve been lying about this virus since early December.”