Lindsey Graham believes he has discovered the real reason Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and it’s not the ghost of Hugo Chávez engineering a massive vote-switching conspiracy. Nor is it the Trump administration’s disastrous Covid-19 response. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite: He lost because he was always correct about Covid-19’s origins—but a sinister cabal (Democrats, the media, Anthony Fauci) conspired to hide the truth from the public.
Writing on Fox News’s website, Graham insisted that the widespread “dismissal” of the so-called “lab leak theory”—the idea that Covid-19 escaped from a virology lab in China’s Wuhan province—played a pivotal role in Trump’s electoral defeat. “There is no doubt in my mind the combination of prominent scientists coming out strongly against the lab leak theory, along with officials from the State Department shutting down additional inquiries, ended up being two of the most consequential events in the 2020 election cycle,” Graham wrote.
Continuing to free-associate, Graham mused on: “In many ways, the situation involving COVID-19’s origins and explanations strikes me much like the now-discredited Steele dossier, which served as the legal basis for the Mueller investigation of President Trump.” Like the Russia investigation, Graham’s argument goes, the suppression of the lab leak hypothesis was an elaborate hoax concocted by Trump’s haters to bring him down.
Naturally, Graham knows exactly what he’s doing by invoking the Russia investigation. His op-ed is only the latest example of the right’s desperate effort to concoct a Russiagate for President Joe Biden—some king of long-lasting, damaging “scandal” that can be used to delegitimize his victory and run his presidency aground.
Graham is hardly alone. “Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus,” Trump said in a statement last month. “To me, it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticized, as usual. Now they are all saying ‘He was right.’ Thank you!”
The “lab leak theory” posits that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is near Covid-19’s epicenter. Early last year, the possibility that the virus was man-made or escaped from the lab via human error was widely dismissed—the accepted idea was that the virus reached humans via a natural exposure route.
Some versions of the lab leak theory are conspiracy theories—for instance, the idea that the virus was deliberately released by China, or that Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates conspired to release it for sinister, corrupt purposes. But the decision to downplay the possibility of a lab leak may have also been a significant overcorrection. When Trump and his allies began labeling the virus the “Wuhan flu,” the “China virus,” or the “Kung flu,” there was widespread, deserved concern that these racist comments would lead to hate crimes and unnecessarily inflame international tensions.
Many of the experts posited an alternative theory: The virus was likely zoonotic in origin, and thus the source of the outbreak was an animal. This may prove to be correct, it may not. It’s possible we won’t know for certain for some time. But if the premature consensus that formed around the origin of the virus in informed circles is worthy of criticism, so too is Trump’s claim to have perfect knowledge of the matter—especially considering his approach to the pandemic was so often rooted in ignorance and incompetence. And Trump’s decision to target the Chinese government’s machinations as the cause of the outbreak was informed by a craven political instinct, not a scientific knowledge. All that mattered at the time was that the president had the opportunity to pass the buck by putting China on the hook for the Trump administration’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic. That’s all that matters now, as well.
We know considerably more about the virus now, and the lab leak hypothesis is looking less unlikely than it did a year ago. Nevertheless, it very much remains a hypothesis. Graham and Trump would prefer to use it to push a larger narrative, that the media and the Democrats conspired to contain the truth so that Joe Biden, a weak and possibly senile candidate, would win the election. Even if Trump had been rigorously pursuing a scientific inquiry into the pandemic’s origins, that work would have been discredited the moment he started calling Covid-19 the “Kung flu.” But he wasn’t involved in a rigorous pursuit: His decision to downplay the threat of the virus and propose increasingly insane responses to it—including injecting household disinfectant and “sunlight”—helped cost him the election. Blaming his defeat on a cover-up of the virus’s real origins raises interesting question about why he didn’t expose the cover-up if, as he and his enablers claim, he was right all along.
The lab leak theory and its attendant controversies is especially difficult to report on at the moment, because the people driving the discussion aren’t sincerely interested in uncovering the origin of the virus. Instead, they are using the matter as a proxy for other unrelated concerns. For Trump, it was a way of excusing his own failures in confronting the pandemic. For Graham, it’s a way of raising the specter of a corrupt press in thrall to the Democratic Party. For many others it has become a new way of raising wider concerns about political correctness and cancel culture—if fears of racial animus are manipulating science, the argument goes, then we’re in trouble.
Graham, however, is on the hunt for a scandal that can gin up fresh outrage and damage Biden, in the style of Russiagate. Of course, Republicans are already selling such a scandal: They have aligned themselves with Trump’s belief that the election was stolen and that Biden is not only illegitimate but a usurper. In this way, the GOP has already tipped its hand, and revealed itself as being devoted to lies. The lab leak theory may be vindicated, or it may not—it’s possible that we’ll never really know for sure where the virus came from. But it certainly doesn’t vindicate Donald Trump, and there’s no reason to believe what he has to say about it.