Republicans Have Manufactured a Controversy Over the Chinese Spy Balloon

Even after it got shot down, they haven’t stopped the political posturing.

Larry Mayer/AP

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A US military fighter jet shot down the Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, but the Biden administration has a different kind of foe that has yet to be neutralized: attacks coming from Republicans trying to score political points over the floating white orb that appeared in America’s skies.

The balloon first came to the public’s attention as it hovered over Montana early this week. Republicans immediately called on the president to shoot it down. “President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted Friday. “It was a mistake to not shoot down that Chinese spy balloon when it was over a sparsely populated area,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) weighed in Friday. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) called for an investigation into the balloon and Biden’s response. Even former Donald Trump advised a course of action on his social media platform Truth Social: “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!”

But once the balloon was shot down, Republicans kept up the criticism, unhappy that the administration had waited days to neutralize it. “The President taking it down over the Atlantic is sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” 

The White House, meanwhile, has been putting out its own version of the story. “I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible,” President Joe Biden told reporters on Saturday. But the administration opted to wait because the safest course of action was to shoot down the balloon over water. 

According to an account of the administration’s thinking from CNN, Biden actually called for bringing down the balloon on Tuesday, when he was first briefed on its emergence over Montana. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised that shooting it down immediately could endanger lives and property on the ground. The administration argues that waiting to down the balloon was not only safer but also strategic because they believed that the United States could better recover and learn about the balloon if it was downed over water. In the meantime, officials argued they were able to learn from the balloon as they tracked it crossed the country. “We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities,” a defense official told CNN. “And I suspect, if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.” Meanwhile, they said, the US took steps to hinder the balloon’s ability to gather intelligence as it crossed the US to the Atlantic Ocean. 

With each of these points, the administration is pushing back with a simple message: It’s more complicated than just shooting immediately.

Finally, the administration has let slip that this wasn’t the first spy balloon to enter US airspace—though it may have been the most bold in attempting to surveil US military infrastructure. According to the Defense Department, Chinese spy balloons “briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration.” Now, Democrats are trying to use this fact to diffuse the GOP’s attacks.

“We should remember that this is now known to have happened under the Trump administration multiple times,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “And so to create another standard for Biden when Trump, it seems, allowed this to go over the United States is just a bit hypocritical.” 

But Republicans aren’t backing down, continuing to build a narrative that Biden’s defense decision-making was irresponsible. “As usual when it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the Biden Administration reacted at first too indecisively and then too late,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement Sunday. “We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace. It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere between the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the coast of Carolina where this balloon could have been shot down right away without endangering Americans or Canadians.” 

The balloon may be down. But the controversy manufactured by Republicans is very much still afloat. 

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