Republicans Sidestep Questions On Chinese Balloons During Trump Years

Republicans are criticizing the Biden administration’s handling of a suspected surveillance balloon from China that entered U.S. airspace this past week ― while sidestepping questions about similar incidents happening several times under former President Donald Trump.

The balloon, which looked like a large white orb to bewildered civilians on the ground, moved eastward through U.S. airspace for several days before the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet shot it down with a short-range missile off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday. The interception was televised live, showing the balloon exploding before falling into the Atlantic.

China maintains that the balloon was a civilian airship used mostly for weather research, but the U.S. claims it was a “spy balloon” that carried sensors and surveillance equipment while passing over sensitive military areas.

Citing an unidentified senior Pentagon official, the Defense Department said in a statement on Saturday that Chinese balloons “briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration.” The Associated Press reported that officials also spoke of another such incident earlier in the Biden administration. None of those four incidents reportedly lasted as long as this week’s, and it has not been confirmed whether the previous balloons were shot down.

President Joe Biden speaks to the press after arriving at Hagerstown Regional Airport in Hagerstown, Maryland, on Feb. 4, 2023.
President Joe Biden speaks to the press after arriving at Hagerstown Regional Airport in Hagerstown, Maryland, on Feb. 4, 2023.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

According to the White House, President Joe Biden was first briefed on the balloon last Tuesday, and a day later authorized the military to shoot it down as soon as it was in a location where civilians wouldn’t be at risk of damage from the debris. But Republicans have spent the weekend criticizing the administration for not acting fast enough to take down the balloon.

When confronted about the various instances of Chinese balloons entering U.S. airspace during the Trump administration, those same Republicans avoided giving a direct answer.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs the House intelligence committee, refused to answer Chuck Todd when asked whether he’d been briefed on the several incidents during the Trump administration. Instead, Turner pivoted back to his claim that Biden is “not seeing the urgency” of the current situation.

When asked about it on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tried to blame the reports of balloons during the Trump years on former President Barack Obama.

“So I’ve spoken to a lot of former Trump administration officials, they say they’re not aware of anything like this happening during their administration,” Cotton told Shannon Bream. “It’s possible, maybe, that it happened first during the Obama administration and the military was told at the time that this is no big deal and they shouldn’t raise the alarm bells on it. We need to get answers to that as well, though.”

Mike Pompeo, who served both as CIA director and secretary of state under Trump, told Fox News on Saturday that he was not aware of such incidents happening “during our four years in office.”

On Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, acknowledged the previous incidents of Chinese balloons entering the U.S., but said they are “no comparison” because of the lengthy flight path taken by the most recent balloon, including over “sensitive military installations.”

Rubio also claimed that China is trying to signal to the world that the U.S. can’t possibly come to the aid of Indo-Pacific nations threatened by China if it can’t shoot down a balloon in its own airspace. When reminded by Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week” that the Biden administration did in fact shoot the balloon down, Rubio responded: “Yeah.”

Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) also claimed that Trump would not have allowed a spy balloon into the country, failing to mention the incidents cited by the Pentagon.

Trump himself rejected the idea that surveillance balloons from China entered the U.S. under his watch, posting his denial Sunday on his far-right platform Truth Social.

“[The Biden administration] are only good at cheating in elections, and disinformation ― and now they are putting out that a Balloon was put up by China during the Trump Administration, in order to take the ‘heat’ off the slow moving Biden fools,” the former president wrote. “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!”