Former President Donald Trump on Sunday claimed that China never sent alleged spy balloons over the U.S. during his administration — but officials say Chinese surveillance balloons traveled over the U.S. at least three times on his watch.
The U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon on Saturday off the coast of North Carolina, which the Pentagon alleged was used to collect information on military sites. President Joe Biden reportedly authorized the military to shoot down the balloon on Wednesday but military officials determine that shooting down over land was too risky and waited until it was over the ocean as Republicans criticized the administration for not downing it sooner.
“SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!” Trump demanded on Truth Social on Friday.
“The Chinese would never have floated the Blimp (‘Balloon’) over the United States if I were President!!!” he wrote in another post on Sunday.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement last week that the balloon did not pose a “military or physical threat to people on the ground” and revealed that similar activity had been “observed previously over the past several years.”
A senior Pentagon official on Saturday told reporters that suspected Chinese government surveillance balloons “transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time.”
Trump denied the Pentagon’s statement on his social media network.
“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,” he wrote. “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!”
Trump also told Fox News Digital that it “never happened with us under the Trump administration and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately.”
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Multiple former administration officials also denied the statement.
Former national security adviser John Bolton told Fox that he was 100% certain there were not any balloon flights during his tenure. John Ratcliffe, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, told Fox News the statement was “not true.” Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN he was “surprised” by the Pentagon’s statement.
“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” Esper said. “I would remember that for sure.”
A senior Biden administration official told Fox News that “U.S. intelligence, not the Biden administration, but U.S. intel assesses PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental U.S. briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time.”
The unnamed official added that “two things can be true at once: this happened, and it wasn’t detected.”
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said that the office of the Secretary of Defense informed him that “several Chinese balloon incidents have happened in the past few years — including over Florida.”
“Why weren’t they shot down?” Waltz questioned.
“And according to several Trump Admin national security officials – they were never informed of these intrusions by the Pentagon,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Biden administration offered to brief Trump and senior members of his administration on the intelligence about the earlier flights, according to Politico.
“This information was discovered after the prior administration left,” a senior defense official told the outlet. “The intelligence community is prepared to offer key officials from the Trump administration briefings on [China’s] surveillance program.”
Republicans have continued to criticize Biden’s handling of the situation while ignoring the reports about the Trump administration. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Sunday told ABC News that he agreed that debris from shooting down the balloon over land could have “hurt, harmed or killed people” but argued that Biden should have gone on national television to explain “what we’re dealing with.”
“None of that happened. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why they waited so long to tell people about this,” Rubio said.
“This happened three times under the previous president,” replied host Jon Karl. “Obviously, there were no public notifications there.”
about the Chinese spy balloon