2017: Things cannot possibly get weirder. 2018: Hold my beer. Shortly after arriving at the White House, the intel community warned Jared Kushner that one of his close friends might attempt to influence him on behalf of a geopolitical foe of the US. No, the other major geopolitical foe, the Wall Street Journal reports:
U.S. counterintelligence officials in early 2017 warned Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, that Wendi Deng Murdoch, a prominent Chinese-American businesswoman, could be using her close friendship with Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, to further the interests of the Chinese government, according to people familiar with the matter.
For those who don’t recognize the name, Wendi Deng Murdoch is the ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of 21st Century Fox, of which Fox News is a major subsidiary. The Murdochs separated in 2013, but apparently by that time Deng Murdoch had ensconced herself close to the Trump inner circle — enough so that the intel community was worried about her access.
Counter-intelligence officials aren’t only worried about Deng Murdoch’s connection to China’s business community. They also worried that she had a relationship with China’s intelligence agency, if perhaps an indirect one:
U.S. officials have also had concerns about a counterintelligence assessment that Ms. Murdoch was lobbying for a high-profile construction project funded by the Chinese government in Washington, D.C., one of these people said.
The project, a planned $100 million Chinese garden at the National Arboretum, was deemed a national-security risk because it included a 70-foot-tall white tower that could potentially be used for surveillance, according to people familiar with the intelligence community’s deliberations over the garden. The garden was planned on one of the higher patches of land near downtown Washington, less than 5 miles from both the Capitol and the White House.
Deng Murdoch denies any involvement with the project, which has been stalled for at least a year or more. At one point the garden had the enthusiastic support of the Obama administration, the WSJ reports. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton presented then-president Hu Jintao with an architectural model of the project, and Barack Obama attended a groundbreaking ceremony in October 2016 with current president Xi Jinping. At some point after that, though, counterintelligence officials got the project stalled over its concerns about building a 70-foot-high surveillance platform in Washington DC. Apparently, no one in the previous administration considered that a problem, but hey, YMMV.
One source tells the WSJ that this isn’t the only time Deng Murdoch has popped up on counterintelligence radar. British and US services had conferred at one point about reports that Deng Murdoch had a romantic relationship with Tony Blair while she was still married to Rupert, whose media empire stretches into the UK. That might have had security implications on both sides of the Atlantic. Blair and Murdoch denied that they had anything other than a friendly public relationship, but that might have been the catalyst for the FBI and CIA to scrutinize her more carefully. Her work on key business deals for News Corp in China might also have added momentum to those concerns.
It certainly paints an interesting picture, but’s mostly correlation without any causation. The WSJ article doesn’t provide much evidence of Deng Murdoch’s agency for China even on a business level, except for the deals that the WSJ covered almost two decades ago. American intel officials wouldn’t offer a specific briefing without more solid concerns than what we see here, so we can suspect that there’s more to the story than the WSJ got.
Still, the Trumps are almost certainly used to having “friends” who attempt to parlay their relationships into commerce, and they may be more adept at separating that out than others who haven’t had the opportunity to navigate among the extremely wealthy. We can certainly say that Deng Murdoch’s influence didn’t stop Donald Trump from making China the chief villain on trade during the 2015-16 campaign, and it hasn’t stopped Trump from attacking Beijing on both trade and North Korea. If Deng Murdoch is attempting to exert influence, it doesn’t seem to be working well enough even to get Xi his Beltway garden.