Rubio warns of foreign actors amplifying virus conspiracies

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senator Marco Rubio, the new Republican Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is warning that foreign actors will seek to amplify conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and find new ways to interfere in the 2020 presidential election.

The Florida Republican said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday that one possibility could be an effort to convince people that a new vaccine against the virus, once created, would be more harmful than helpful.

“I think the COVID-19 crisis is one in which you’ve seen efforts to promote false narratives that drive some of the friction in this country,” Rubio said.

Four years after Russian efforts to sow division in the US (United States), he warned, “I’m not sure that we’re any less vulnerable than we were.”

The new intelligence post comes as Rubio has risen to greater prominence in the Senate since his turbulent 2016, when he lost the Republican primary to US President Donald Trump and then decided to run for re-election after originally saying he would retire. He was tapped as chairman last week when Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina decided to temporarily step aside amid a federal investigation into his stock sales.

File photo shows Senator Marco Rubio speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. PHOTO: AP

As Rubio considers whether to run for president again – that’s a question he said, “I need to answer in the future” – he is now working two crucial jobs, at intelligence and also as the chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, which is trying to resuscitate the spiraling economy.

For the senator, who arrived in Washington on the 2010 tea party wave, the dual gavels offer a prime platform for his populist economic outlook, particularly his early warnings on China, that are now mainstays of the GOP and on point with Trump’s appeal to Americans who feel left behind by the global economy.

“I do think there’s going to be a broader conversation,” Rubio said about supply chains and domestic manufacturing, “that’s going to have to be part of the new 21st-Century economy post-pandemic”.

Now privy to the highest level classified briefings as chairman, Rubio said he can’t talk about specific influence operations because “obviously some of that is ongoing”. But he believes the Russian efforts so far have “succeeded far beyond Putin’s wildest dreams”. By tapping into polarised politics and fanning conspiracy theories, he said, Russia and other foreign actors are like “lighting a match”. He also points to China’s efforts to deflect its own role in the crisis.

“The goal is to keep you so divided and fighting with each other that you become dysfunctional and unable to respond to the threat,” he said.