Conspiracy theorists never let a crisis go to waste.
When something truly terrible happens, the conspiracy theorist sets to work to determine the dark, hidden forces at work behind the scenes that have produced the crisis. Some people might see God or the Devil as the prime mover behind a catastrophe. Others throw up their hands and mutter, “shit happens.”
Not conspiracy theorists. They need to find a secret human culprit, preferably someone or something that they’ve been warning about for years.
A conspiracy theorist begins with a conclusion — the Bush administration engineered the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama is a Muslim, the Democratic Party is running a child pornography ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC — and then works backward to fashion a faulty timeline that leads to that conclusion. Along the way, the theorist marshals the plausible, the implausible, and the downright ludicrous in an effort to prove a far-fetched contention. In this way, conspiracy theorists shoehorn messy reality into their simplistic worldviews.
The current pandemic presents a grand opportunity for conspiracy theorists. Go on the Internet and you’ll find a bumper crop of lunatic notions:
Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, one of the few sane voices coming out of the Trump administration, is actually “a Deep-State Hillary Clinton–loving stooge,” according to the right-wing American Thinker.
Billionaire Bill Gates helped create the coronavirus so that he could put microchips into people’s heads, argues the unshameable Trump ally Roger Stone.
The pandemic is just a ploy to push vaccines into people’s veins. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” writes anti-vaxxer Larry Cook. “Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.”
The rollout of 5G networks caused the coronavirus.
It’s bad enough to be hit by a pandemic and a massive economic downturn. Now we also have to deal with a calamitous collapse in common sense?
Still, all of these conspiracy theories pale in significance next to the crazy and dangerous propositions about China and the coronavirus coming from Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and much of the Republican Party. The other conspiracy theories circulate the Internet like bad memes, chasing their tails until they’re replaced with newer nonsense.
The Trump administration is playing a different game. Desperate to defect responsibility for its own catastrophic failures, Trump is weaponizing his China conspiracies — with considerably greater economic and geopolitical consequences.
Did the Lab Do It?
The Trump administration has made several accusations against China. It has asserted that the coronavirus was manufactured in a biological laboratory in Wuhan. It has argued that China engaged in a cover-up that allowed the virus to spread around the world. It has said that China underestimated the severity of the epidemic and hoarded medical equipment.
The administration is now preparing to take actions that will make the earlier trade war with China look like a mere disagreement among friends.
Let’s start with the various coronavirus origin theories.
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, was the epicenter of the current pandemic. In that same city, both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention study coronaviruses and the bats that carry them.
For conspiracy theorists, proximity is a sufficient smoking gun. They began linking one or the other institute to the outbreak back in January 2020. At the end of January, The Washington Post was already debunking the notion that the virus was manufactured in a lab. In February, 27 prominent public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet that they and their colleagues “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”
None of that has prevented Trump and Pompeo from asserting otherwise. Pompeo said this weekend that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. He neglected to furnish any of this evidence. When reminded that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the virus was not manmade, Pompeo was forced to walk back his initial statement.
It’s possible, of course, that a sample of the virus collected in the wild accidentally escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A set of State Department cables from 2018 reported on concerns over safety standards at the institute. Lab mishaps indeed happen with disturbing frequency. In the United States, for instance, such breaches have involved anthrax, Ebola, and the plague. So, an accidental breach at a Wuhan lab is within the realm of possibility.
But scientists who have sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus maintain that it is unlike the particular bat coronavirus studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But what if scientists in Wuhan had manipulated the virus they were studying, hoping to create what they call a “gain of function”? Again, given the genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus, there’s no evidence of this kind of manipulation.
As The Washington Postconcluded in its Fact Checker analysis, “The balance of the scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature — be it the Wuhan market or somewhere else. Too many unexpected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab.”
As usual, Donald Trump is accusing others of sins that he has committed in spades. The president ignored various briefings throughout January 2020 about the dangers of the coronavirus. He now claims that he only learned in late January about the disease and that these briefings stressed that it was “non-threatening.”
Given the overwhelming evidence of the earlier briefings — he ignored direct warnings from Alex Azar on January 18 and an intelligence briefing on January 23 — Trump is doing his damnedest to pretend ignorance.
Now, let’s jump ahead more than a month. If Trump had issued social distancing guidelines two weeks earlier than he did — on March 2 rather than March 16 — the death toll could have been reduced by 90 percent, according to two epidemiologists writing in The New York Times. That’s over 60,000 deaths (and rising) that should rest on the president’s conscience (if he possessed one). Of course, other politicians — like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio — should have also acted with greater urgency. But there’s no substitute for confident national leadership. And there’s no nightmare like bad national leadership.
And now, in the midst of his own dizzying attempts at covering up his own mistakes, Trump has decided to blame China for its own cover-up. “They made a mistake, they tried to cover it, like a fire,” he said at a Fox News virtual town hall over the weekend. “They couldn’t put out the fire.”
Unlike the United States, China had no advance warning that a new disease was about to strike and spread. Still, when doctors started to report a new disease in Wuhan in late December, the Chinese government reacted with its usual authoritarian approach. It tried to clamp down on the bad news. So, yes, that was a mistake. And it wouldn’t be the only one, as I noted in a column in mid-March.
But it was only three weeks between the identification of the new disease and the lockdown of Wuhan. The disease emerged at the end of December and by the third week of January, when deaths were in the low double digits and infections still in the triple digits, virtually all of Hubei province was under quarantine. In between identification and lockdown, China briefed the World Health Organization on the situation and released the genome sequence of the new disease.
And China practiced early detection and isolation, a technique that South Korea would implement even more effectively. As David Cyranoski wrote in Nature back in March:
"Before the interventions, scientists estimated that each infected person passed on the coronavirus to more than two others, giving it the potential to spread rapidly. Early models of the disease’s spread, which did not factor in containment efforts, suggested that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, would infect 40% of China’s population — some 500 million people. But between 16 and 30 January, a period that included the first 7 days of the lockdown, the number of people each infected individual gave the virus to dropped to 1.05, estimates Adam Kucharski, who models infectious-disease spread at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 'That was amazing,' he says."
So, China was putting out the fire with greater dispatch than most other countries. It’s one of the reasons why it has been the first country to emerge from the other side of the crisis. The rapid containment of China’s outbreak is one of the major reasons that other countries even had a chance at containing their own.
What about Homeland Security’s contention that China misrepresented the severity of the crisis in order to stock up on medical supplies? This seems unlikely. The Chinese government didn’t seem to understand the severity of the crisis in those early days. In fact, it was only later, between January 24 and February 27, that China imported “2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks, gloves and ventilators,” according to Chinese statistics.
But this was well after China was telling the world that the epidemic was serious, and it coincided with its efforts to deal with its own crisis. Was it hoarding, or was it preparing for a potential catastrophe of 500 million infected people?
Could China have done better? Absolutely. Earlier action would have even more significantly reduced the infection rate. Even the Chinese government has admitted that. “In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies,” the Politburo admitted in a report in early February, “we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks.” Trump, in contrast, has made no such admission of deficiencies.
Let’s be clear: China screwed up during one critical week at the beginning of January when it misunderstood or downplayed the risk of the new disease. But compare that with the two months of Trump dismissing the severity of COVID-19. During that period, by the way, Trump had nothing but praise for China’s handling of the crisis.
It’s not just the Trump administration that is dumping on China. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published a tendentious piece last week that mixed the factual with the fictional. He correctly notes that China silenced critics. But then adds that China “manipulated statistics to downplay the outbreak’s severity.” Follow that link and you’ll discover that China updated its statistics to account for uncounted deaths, for instance those that died at home.
Perhaps Rogin hasn’t been paying attention to the reporting in his own paper about excess U.S. deaths during the first months of the coronavirus crisis, at least some of which will ultimately be attributed to the pandemic. “The problem of undercounting coronavirus deaths is not unique to this pandemic or to the United States,” the April 27 article concluded.
China could indeed be a great deal more transparent about its statistics, the origins of the virus, and its response to the pandemic. But The Economist is off base when it asserts that “China’s opacity has allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.” The relationship between opacity and conspiracy theories is by no means so direct. Obama went to great lengths to prove his citizenship, and it did little to quiet the “birther” movement.
Many conspiracy theories are politically motivated. The Trump administration feels an urgent need to shift the blame. China could submit to a full proctological exam, and Trump would still accuse Beijing of covering its ass.
Trump on the Offensive
The United States and China have been entangled economically for decades. Trump is determined to end all that. His earlier trade sanctions have done much to untie the two economies, as suppliers and importers in both countries have looked for other partners. The battle over the world’s digital infrastructure has also sharpened competition between two IT giants.
The pandemic is providing a pretext for Trump to double down.
“We’ve been working on [reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China] over the last few years but we are now turbo-charging that initiative,” a State Department undersecretary told Reuters. Trump is also targeting scientific cooperation between the two countries. He is considering an executive order banning government pension funds from investing in Chinese companies. He signed into law the Taiwan Act in March committing Washington to push other countries to recognize Taiwan diplomatically.
The president’s more radical advisors are even pushing Trump to default on the U.S. debt to China, claiming that withholding repayment would constitute a form of reparations for the damage that China has “caused” with the coronavirus. (Ah, so calling it the “China virus” was not merely racist, it was part of building a legal case for compensation.) Since the “Spanish flu” originated in the United States, Trump may open up the United States to more court challenges than it bargained for.
“The United States would be better advised to focus on those genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game,” observes Max Boot in The Washington Post, “lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.” The Chinese ambassador to the United States brings the arguments closer to the present day. “To ask a victim for compensation is simply ridiculous,” Cui Tiankai argues. “If that made sense, then who was to compensate for the fatalities of the H1N1 flu and HIV/AIDS? Who was to pay for the huge losses caused by the 2008 financial crisis?”
Floating the nuclear option of debt default is probably just another example of Trump’s tactic of calculated overreach. He’s likely gearing up for another round of tariffs on Chinese goods, which will then seem sensible in comparison (instead of just plain insane given the circumstances). But who knows: Trump likes dramatic, unprecedented, and stupid actions.
I was never a big fan of the “adults in the room.” But realists like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis are no longer counseling caution in the administration. Instead, squawking in Trump’s ear is a flock of hawks — Pompeo, Peter Navarro, and the National Security Council’s China hand, Matt Pottinger. Trump is susceptible to man-crushing on autocrat Xi Jinping. The hawks are determined to nip that relationship in the bud.
Of course, you don’t have to be a realist to understand that an economic and diplomatic war with China at this point is a bad idea. You just have to register a modicum of brain activity. The U.S. economy is crashing. The pandemic here is far from over (despite what some governors and gun owners think). What a great time to make it even more difficult for U.S. farmers and manufacturers to survive the downturn.
It’s not as if China is weak at the moment and eager to capitulate. It has recovered from the pandemic. It has reopened its economy in a more-or-less responsible fashion. It has the financial resources to help countries that have been hobbled by the crisis. It has achieved even greater international credit in the wake of Trump’s disastrous foreign policy, for instance by upping its contribution to the WHO as Trump suspends U.S. payments.
Trump, however, knows that only a conspiracy theory (or better yet, several) can get him reelected. Compared to his previous efforts in the genre — the “birther movement,” Obama’s alleged wiretapping of his phone — this mythmaking about China has the full force of the U.S. government behind it, along with much of the pundit class, and a bunch of disgruntled allies as well.
The Republican Party, desperate to deflect attention not only from the pandemic and the economic depression but from Trump’s patent irresponsibility as well, has seized on China as an electoral “Hail Mary” pass. Republican congressional candidates are now running ads that blame China for “the Wuhan epidemic,” promise to “make China pay” for “the lies they told and the jobs they stole,” and warn, “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”
With November in their sights, Trump and the Republicans are digging themselves into a hole — all the way to China.
This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.
John Feffer is an author and director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been an Open Society Foundation Fellow and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He has also worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee.
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”