Washington | President Donald Trump raised the prospect that China deliberately caused the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed more than 38,000 Americans and said there should be consequences if the country is found to be "knowingly responsible".
"Let's see what happens with their investigation. But we're doing investigations also," Mr Trump said at a White House news conference on Saturday. "If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then there should be consequences."
As scrutiny of Mr Trump's response to the outbreak has intensified, congressional Republicans have sought to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak, which emerged from the country's Hubei province in late 2019.
Some Republican lawmakers have suggested the virus was released from a lab during Chinese experiments, and have floated a bill that would allow Americans to sue China for damages.
Republican political organisations have attacked Democrats who have defended the Chinese people or their leadership, in one case calling a Democratic House member a "Chinese asset" for his remarks.
"Our relationship with China was good until they did this," Mr Trump said on Saturday (Sunday AEST). "The question was asked, 'would you be angry at China?' Well, the answer might very well be a very resounding yes, but it depends: was it a mistake that got out of control, or was it done deliberately?"
"There's a big difference between those two," he said.
The Trump campaign sent a fund-raising email last week that accused China of "lying" about the outbreak. But Mr Trump himself hasn't been as harsh on the country.
He repeatedly praised China and its president, Xi Jinping, in January and February for its handling of the outbreak, complicating Republican efforts to brand the country as a villain now.
Mr Trump said last week he would halt US funding for the World Health Organisation, accusing the UN agency of taking Chinese claims about the disease "at face value". The move has been criticised internationally and by many Democrats.