In a private conversation with President Donald Trump during the rapid acceleration of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s leader Xi Jinping went out of his way to deploy one of the most effective diplomatic maneuvers of the current American era: aggressive flattery.

In a phone call to discuss the international health crisis last week, Xi stressed to Trump how decisive, strong, and successful he feels his U.S. counterpart’s public-health and economic responses have been, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter said. The flattery came at a time when Trump was continuing to experience a deluge of criticism for his administration’s response to the pandemic. It also came as some of the American president’s most prominent officials were still engaged in a multipronged campaign to castigate the Chinese government for an alleged coronavirus cover-up and to rebrand the illness as the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan virus.”

Trump had begun incorporating that language into his public utterances, framing the pandemic as a war whose origins were in China. But lately, he has softened his tone and adopted a more deferential stance toward Xi—whom he routinely calls his good “friend” and an “incredible guy”— going out of his way to compliment and excuse Beijing for its response to the virus, and to even publicly shrug off new reporting on China’s disinformation apparatus in the midst of the pandemic.