By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
The outbreak of the new coronavirus has drastically altered the campaigns for Alabama's runoff elections. Originally scheduled for March 31, runoffs for the GOP races for Congress and U.S. Senate are now postponed until July 14.
The pandemic and its total consumption of the news cycle have also shifted the narrative for candidates. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is running for his former seat in the U.S. Senate, has capitalized on the situation to take an aggressive position against China and highlight his foreign policy bonafides.
In the runoff, Sessions faces former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who won 33 percent of the vote to Sessions’ 32 percent in the March 3 primary election.
This week Sessions is releasing a plan called "Betting on America" that outlines proposals for exposing and punishing China for its role in spreading the new coronavirus.
The virus originated in Wuhan, China and multiple media reports have called into question the Chinese government’s truthfulness in telling the world the true extent of the outbreak there. The U.S. intelligence community concluded last week that China concealed the true number of infections and deaths in the country, Bloomberg reported.
Sessions’ plan has multiple planks: Exposing China’s role in the outbreak, mandating that a high percentage of medical equipment be made in America and stopping Chinese companies from building 5G internet infrastructure in the U.S.
In an interview with Alabama Daily News, Sessions discussed his China strategy, as well as how his campaign is adjusting to the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak:
Todd C. Stacy: How are y’all holding up? Is the family hunkered down?
Jefferson B. Sessions: Well, basically, yes, we are. You know, we try not to go to the grocery store every day, but we haven’t gotten out much. Haven’t gone to church, stayed at home. But, Todd, I have been pleasantly surprised how effective the campaign can be. Even when you’re kept at home, we work real hard at it. And I think we’ve done very well. I mean, it probably would be better if you could travel, but we’ve had some success here. We’ve gotten on a lot of radio talk shows, we’ve done two Fox News interviews from right here at home on Saturday and today.
We’ve also done social media. We’ve been more intentional about that. So there are other ways you can touch people, but it’s different.
TCS: I was thinking, had this outbreak happened two years ago, you would have played a central role in the response as attorney general of the United States. Have you remained in touch with your folks in Washington?
JBS: Well, yeah. The attorney general does sit on the National Security Council and some of those issues do come out of there. There’s always a lot of legal opinions that guide the agencies that come from the Department of Justice. So, there would be a lot to do as attorney general, no doubt about it. I’m sure Bill Barr is actively engaged.
TCS: What's your sense on how the response is going?
JBS: I think good. You know, people can say what they want to about these daily meetings, but everybody in the government watches. And they get messages from the president, from the vice president and other top officials about the policies and the plans, sometimes more effectively than if some memo went down through the chain of command. They see it right there, so I think that’s very good leadership in itself. And the president personally is engaged. The problem with a big response like this is it does take an “all of nation” approach. Sometimes they call it an “all of government” approach, but this one is so big, it’s “all of nation,” every county and city and state and hospitals and down to the average citizen being engaged in it. So, I think the television leadership has worked well and I think the government has operated at as high a level of decisiveness as you can expect this monumental bureaucracy to operate that way. But it’s operating fairly effectively, I think.
TCS: How satisfied were you with the legislation that came through (CARES Act)?
JBS: Well, I’ve been talking to some people all around the state and there’s generally a pretty positive feeling about it. I had one person a few days ago, a small business owner, say it wasn’t going to work for them, but I think maybe that’s been fixed. I just got off the phone with somebody who is confident the system is going to work for him. Small businesses are hard to help. How do you get this money to a small business? Each small business is different with different sets of problems. So I was pretty impressed that that seems to be working effectively. The amount of money is absolutely mind boggling. One bill with $2 trillion, and it has to be spent within what, a matter of days, almost? It’s a challenge of monumental proportions to do that effectively.
TCS: I think most people were in agreement that Gov. Kay Ivey postponing the election was a smart thing to do. It's almost scary to think how much worse the spread could have been if all of us went to the polls last week. At the same time, it makes the election much different. I wondered how that was affecting you. Do you think it helps y'all? Hurts y'all? Does the extra time give your campaign more of an opportunity to get your message out?
JBS: Well, I guess both candidates have that same opportunity. I do feel like, as a practical matter, we are effectively reaching out and effectively touching people. I could be wrong, but that’s the way it feels to me. It’s my view that you play the ball where it lies. They gave us a date, the governor I’m sure did what she thought was right and we intend to follow the rules and be as effective as we possibly can every day until July 14.
TCS: Do you worry at all that campaigning too much would be seen as inappropriate during the crisis?
JBS: I don’t think so. We’re not running TV ads. We’re at home but staying active in laying out plans for the future, just like every business is trying to do what they can and be safe in the process. Our mission is very important, which is to reach the people of Alabama and tell them what kind of vision I have for the future and ask for their support. That’s my business and we intend to do it vigorously every single day and I do not think in any way we ought to take time off.
TCS: Let's talk about China. You have been aggressively blaming that country for the spread of the coronavirus and talking about different steps our country should take in the future. Can you spell out, specifically, what is the real beef with China? What have they done?
JBS: Well, in the Senate and, in particular, as attorney general, I came to have a far clearer understanding of the relentless determination of the Chinese communist government for world leadership, world domination, actually. And I came to recognize fully that they don’t play by our rules to achieve their ends. They do whatever they get away with, and as long they get away with it, they keep doing it. So to me, just as an aside, a guy wrote a book last year - Ward, Jonathan Ward - and he said that we’ve made a lot of mistakes, we have been sleep, but that it wasn’t too late. America needs a “Sputnik moment” to realize the challenge from China to meet it. And so I see this as the “Sputnik moment.”
We had a situation in which eight doctors, Chinese doctors, were taking steps to deal with this growing virus in China, and they were confronted by the government, accused of spreading rumors, jailed and required to recant what they’d been saying. That was January 1st of this year. On January 14th, they convinced Mr. Tedros at the World Health Organization that this virus is not spread from human to human, therefore creating the impression that it was not likely to become a pandemic, and that was utterly false. He tweeted out January 14th that this was not transmitted from human to human. So, I guess what I would say is, this coverup is perhaps the greatest cover up in the history of the world. A University of South Hampton study in England said that, had they made this known three weeks sooner and people had acted on it, 95% percent of the infections would not have occurred. So, at the most basic level, the Chinese’s typical communist, misinformation, disinformation and lies made this pandemic far more serious than it ever should have been. They go around attacking other countries for not being as smart as they claim they are in responding to the situation, but all these countries were minding their own business, and next thing you know, this Chinese virus that could have been contained in China was coming into their country from all kinds of sources. This is a virus that originated in China. [National Review} a few days ago wrote an article that clearly suggested it very it well could have come from a lab that was studying this virus, which is only nine hundred meters from the wet market, where most people want to say it came from. And there were two scientists in China, doctors, one of them went to Northwestern University, they wrote that it probably came from the laboratories and then they were hushed up and that study disappeared, although I have it on my website, just a two page analysis, but it’s pretty persuasive. So, I guess I would say to you now, we know how they think and how they operate. They don’t operate like Canada. They don’t operate like Mexico or Sweden. The Chinese communists are a different bunch, and when you’re dealing with them for trade issues, technology issues, manufacturing issues, you can not rely on goodwill.
We need to reset our relationship. I’ve got a plan for it. I call it “Betting on America.” The first plank of our plan is to call for and have a major select committee investigation of China and exactly what happened. If they don’t cooperate, we learn something from that. Good nations would cooperate. Why won’t they cooperate? We know all kinds of things, like we know about these doctors and we know the reports and stuff that has been in the China media before this all blew up. So we could piece together the story pretty effectively, but it needs to be done, and the American people need to know just how blatantly they lied. The second plank we announced today deals with the need for the United States to be able to produce medicines and medical products in America and not be dependent on China or other supply chains outside the United States. We’ve got a proposal to do that, to have most of the federal health care entities like the Defense Department, Veterans Affairs, Medicare, Medicaid, to buy the majority of their medicines in the United States.
TCS: That would be a new law, like a legal requirement similar to the military?
JBS: Yes. Of course, you know that 95 percent or more of our antibiotics and a big percentage of diabetic diabetic drugs are made in China, and they threatened us. They threatened to “throw us in the great coronavirus sea.” One of the state news organizations said that. So I think there’s strong support for that. I was on Maria Bartiromo today, and she was strongly for that and strongly for standing up to China.
But, in addition, we’ll be talking about 5G. As attorney general, I became well aware, as most Americans are now, that China’s Huawei desires to supply our 5G networks. In fact, they’ve gotten great government support from China. They are ahead of the game. They are probably cheaper than anybody that could probably do it right now, and they just want to do it. The Defense Department and the American intelligence agencies are apoplectic about it. It cannot be, and the truth is, we as a nation cannot allow China to operate our information networks, our high-speed Internet.
TCS: So does that mean they are building it, building the devices, or just owning the companies that do, or what?
JBS: The technology is complicated, but basically it's this step up to 5G networks. It's so much faster. The world is going to it. Europe is going to it. They've got a company named Ericsson that's pretty good, but they're behind Huawei. But Huawei is ahead, and we've got to decide, like Australia did. Australia said "you're not running on networks because it gives you too much of an ability to gain intelligence of every aspect of society." Of course, our Defense Department uses the Internet. President Trump has made the same decision, but the prime minister of the U.K., he agreed to go with Huawei, but it looks like they're reevaluating because of the virus and the lies they told about the virus. That's very much an important part of our relationship with China in the future, and we simply just need to say, "you're not supplying our 5G network."
TCS: Do you worry that all of the things you are proposing might complicate trade negotiations with China?
JBS: Well, my view - and I think the president’s view - is that this is going to be a tough number of years and we’re going to have to defend American interests. China will wail, the China lobby and those companies and interest groups that have always been influenced by China, who have investments there and so forth, they’ll push back about it. China will target and try to hurt certain American industries to protect their advantages. But, the president has already stood up to them. He slapped tariffs on them. He’s forced them to buy more soybeans and improved agriculture sales with China, and he did it by putting big tariffs on them, that’s how he did it. The leverage we have, and the president I have talked about this personally during the campaign more than once, China needs the American market. That’s where they’re making their profits. That’s where they’re making their money. They’re closing our factories and making the products in China, hey’re selling them to us for a profit, and they’re using those profits to surge their military, among other things. So, we allow China almost unfettered access, free market access, to the United States market, but they don’t allow us access to the Chinese market? They require us to sometimes have a Chinese company have a majority stake. They require sometimes to reveal technologies. Take Mercedes. It was reported in the Wall Street Journal recently that to sell their vehicles in China, they were forced to buy batteries in China when Mercedes has its own battery plants. It was a very sore subject, but they were forced to use the Chinese company for batteries.
TCS: Last question while I still have you - does it take a pandemic and a national crisis to get voters thinking and talking about foreign policy on the campaign trail?
JBS: Well, that’s what I guess I meant when I said this is our “Sputnik moment.” This is a moment of clarity. In a democracy, sometimes big events do allow us to see things more clearly. That’s why I believe we have a rare opportunity to actually follow through and reset our entire relationship with China. China is not acting as a responsible world citizen. They are acting like a Communist Party state, which they are. They pretend to believe in free markets, but they have no belief in free markets. Their goal is to strengthen the regime. All their plans are focused in that regard. They have a long term plan to achieve dominance and they are executing it. We’ve been asleep and it’s time for us to defend ourselves. I mean, it’s important in the future that we have a good relationship with China, but we will not have a good relationship with them if we enable them to continue to take advantage of us. They’re playing in the big leagues now. They are a big time country, a big-time, high-tech manufacturing country. They don’t need any more subsidies. We don’t need to tolerate cheating and unfairness and dishonesty and crime. We need to defend our interests as vigorously as we possibly can.