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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — In this 2017 file photo, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON -- While his Senate colleagues were focusing on the president's removal or acquittal, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., spent much of this week sounding the alarm about the coronavirus.

As a result, he has missed several stretches of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

His seat was empty for an hour Thursday evening. It was vacant, as well, during two 45-minute stretches on Wednesday.

In a text, a Cotton spokesman said the senator Thursday had "stepped out of the trial briefly to advise the administration on coronavirus developments."

Wednesday's absences were for the same reason, the spokesman said in a subsequent text.

The lawmaker from Dardanelle has branded the impeachment a "sham." The coronavirus, on the other hand, is "the biggest and the most important story in the world," he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during its hearing Thursday morning.

"This coronavirus is a catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl for China. But actually, it's probably worse than Chernobyl, which was localized in its effect. The coronavirus could result in a global pandemic," he warned military officials and colleagues. Chernobyl was a 1986 nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine.

[RELATED: New virus designated worldwide emergency » https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/jan/31/new-virus-designated-worldwide-emergenc/]

Throughout the day, Cotton was tweeting about the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, and has sickened thousands.

"MESSAGE TO ALL AMERICANS IN CHINA: Get out -- now. Contact our embassy or consulates if you need help," a 3:14 p.m. tweet urged.

"As a defensive measure, we must shut down commercial air travel between the United States and China," a 5:01 p.m. tweet advised. "As an offensive measure, we need a Manhattan Project level effort to work with our best research scientists and laboratories to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible."

The warnings and updates -- more than a dozen of them -- continued into the evening.

"As I've said for a week: 'Do NOT travel to China. If you're in China, GET OUT. Contact our embassy or consulates if you need help," a 9:26 p.m. tweet stated.

Another tweet welcomed news that the World Health Organization had designated the outbreak a "global health emergency," calling it a week overdue.

Thursday night, the U.S. State Department also sounded the alarm, urging Americans not to travel to China.

In addition to the warnings, Cotton has also condemned China's handling of the crisis, accusing Beijing of dishonesty.

"China admits to 6,000 cases of coronavirus. China is LYING!," he tweeted Wednesday. "The real number is likely many times greater, and probably growing fast."

[MORE: Patient in state isolated, official says » https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/jan/31/official-patient-in-state-isolated-2020/]

The senator also has questioned whether China is being honest about the origins of the virus. He disputed claims that the virus originated in a fish market and noted that there is a virology institute in Wuhan.

Cotton, who was not available for comment Thursday with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is remaining abreast of trial developments despite his absences, his spokesman said in a subsequent text.

"Senator Cotton has consulted frequently all week with the president and cabinet officials about the administration's plan of action for the coronavirus epidemic. He monitors the questions and answers from the cloakroom during these phone calls," the spokesman added.

Asked about Cotton's absence from the trial, Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray said he wouldn't second-guess the decision.

"I think Sen. Cotton has made it clear where he stands on the impeachment trial," Gray said. "If Sen. Cotton said he's working on the coronavirus issue, that is very important and it's not my place to judge whether or not he should be in the room."

A Section on 01/31/2020

Print Headline: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton steps away from trial to deal with China virus

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