With the sudden news Sunday night via The Wall Street Journal that the Biden Department of Energy believes COVID-19 came via a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Monday’s White House press briefing featured one hardball after another for both Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and her main crutch John Kirby of the National Security Council.
However, the “big three” networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC didn’t follow suit into Tuesday morning as, after full coverage Monday morning and evening, the story disappeared (aside from the “Eye Opener” on CBS Mornings). Prior to this, they had spent 13 minutes and 48 seconds on their flagship morning and evening newscasts.
Fox’s Jacqui Heinrich broke the ice with Kirby, asking “how should Americans understand China’s response here, saying that this is politically motivated, it’s a lie, there’s no science to back it, and swatting down this information.”
Kirby replied by claiming President Biden has “made trying to find the origins of COVID a priority right when he came into office” and dismissed the reporting since “[t]here is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how COVID started.”
“China, though, is pretty clearly accusing the Biden administration of smearing them and trying to say that this is baseless, people shouldn’t believe it, and it’s a politically motivated attack,” Heinrich wondered in one of her two follow-ups.
In the other, she questioned what the U.S. would do to China if it’s confirmed the virus came from a lab and China lied about it.)
Kirby insisted he wouldn’t “get ahead of where we are in the process” since there isn’t a “consensus” or “conclusion”.
ABC senior congressional correspondent Rachel Scott kept pressing by asking “the evidence that the department is basing this assessment on be shared with the American people,” but Kirby said that’d “absolutely” happen if a cause is pinned down.
CBS’s Weijia Jiang noted the lack of any “consensus from the intelligence community” “in October 2021,” so something had to have changed (click “expand”):
JIANG: Back in October 2021, it was also the case that there was no consensus from the intelligence community, you know, where COVID came from. Without revealing sensitive information, has the IC gathered new information, new intelligence, since then that might have led DOE to draw a different conclusion?
KIRBY: We — again, without confirming the press reporting on the Department of Energy’s work here — and the context for them is that they run the National Labs, and the President wanted the National Labs involved. Again, a whole-of-government effort. The work is still ongoing. There hasn’t been a final conclusion arrived at here. And not everyone in the intelligence community or across the government necessarily has come to a consensus view here on how it started, but I want to go back to what I said before, and that’s that — that we — the President believes it’s important to know so that we can better prevent future pandemics and obviously, regardless of what — what the source is, it’s important for people to know that scientific research can still occur — needs to occur in a safe and secure manner.
Real Clear Politics’s Philip Wegmann had perhaps the question of the briefing as he sought Biden’s views on whether the U.S. should continue supporting gain of function research: “[D]oes the President believe, though, that the reward outweighs the risk when it comes to gain-of-function research?”
After initially seeming befuddled, Kirby voiced Biden’s support for gain of function research because “it’s important to help prevent future pandemics” and thus “there has to be legitimate scientific research into the sources — or potential sources — of pandemics”.
“It must be done in a safe and secure manner as — and as transparent as possible...so people know what’s going on,” he added.
Moving to Jean-Pierre’s portion, USA Today’s Joey Garrison pulled on Scott’s thread with the qualifier that, if the Energy Department’s assessment can’t be released, there’s a reason for it. Doubling backing on Kirby’s spin, Jean-Pierre proclaimed she couldn’t “confirm” that since it’s a news “story.”
Heinrich got a second crack and she called out the fact that “not so long ago,” those mentioning the possibility of a lab leak were “derided as ‘fringe,’ you know, ‘conspiracy theorists’” (click “expand”):
HEINRICH: [L]ooking, you know, with hindsight 20/20 and now these conclusions coming out from parts of this administration, was it prudent to have, at the time, some administration officials voicing support for one origins theory over another, like Dr. Fauci did at a couple — in a couple of instances. He said, you know, “My belief is that it’s most likely natural transmission.” Dr. Collins, at one point, sent an e-mail to Dr. Fauci that was discussing the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theory, so given where we’re at now, looking backward and with respect to how we talk about these things if it ever happens in the future, is it — is it prudent to have members within the administration voicing support for one theory over another if there isn’t a consensus of that?
JEAN-PIERRE: So, I do want to speak to Dr. Fauci, because the political attacks on someone like Dr. Fauci...have been counterproductive. They have not been helpful. This is someone, again, who has spent his almost entire career fighting for the well-being, the health of the American people and so, I just want to call out the political attacks. I think, again, it’s not been helpful. Dr. Fauci himself has said he agrees with the President that we needed to get to the bottom of this...[W]e have been grateful to Dr. Fauci’s wisdom. We’ve been grateful to Dr. Fauci’s advice during the COVID response and we have been very, very clear here: We need...to know more. We need to get to the bottom of how — how — how COVID-19 originated and so, that is why — again, that is why the President directed his — his IC and — his intelligence co- — co- — committee — community to get to the bottom of this and so, I’ll leave it there.
HEINRICH: But more broadly than Dr. Fauci though, I guess what I’m getting at is: There was, not so long ago, a point where anyone asking the question of whether a lab leak was a credible theory which should be looked into — you know, a lot of those people were derided as “fringe,” you know, “conspiracy theorists.” So are there lessons learned, you know, looking back, about how we discuss theories when we don’t have all the answers?
JEAN-PIERRE: So, what — here’s what I can tell you is — the President’s commitment to getting to the bottom of this. Right? That is what is the most important so that we can — you know, we can share this with Congress. We can share this with the American people. That is why he asked the IC to do its work and right now, there is no consensus. There is no consensus...The President is asking his team to do everything that they can to figure out where it originated...That’s what the American people should have confidence in, is that you have a President that wants to get to the bottom of this.
Even NBC got in on the action. Kelly O’Donnell correctly noted the Energy Department has jurisdiction over the country’s top laboratories, so wouldn’t this revelation of a lab leak have “a sense of greater...credibility or insight.”
Of course, Jean-Pierre didn’t want anything to do with it, stating in part that she wasn’t “at liberty to confirm” the Journal’s “reporting, so I’m not going to do that from here.”
To see the relevant transcript from February 27’s briefing (including more COVID-19 questions), click here.