The nice thing about soliciting foreign governments to investigate your would-be election opponent in full view of cameras on the White House lawn is that you only need to do it once. Never again does Trump need to repeat that request behind closed doors or send an emissary like Rudy Giuliani on his behalf. If you’re Beijing and you’re looking to soften up Trump’s position on the trade war or other global matters, you know what to do.
In fact, after reading this Financial Times story, I thought back to how quiet Trump has been about the NBA kerfuffle this week and about Hong Kong generally. A reporter specifically asked him last night if he was okay with the Chinese government pressuring the NBA over Hong Kong. That’s between them, said the president of the United States. Did he pass on criticizing China because, let’s face it, he’s an authoritarian by instinct himself and would love to have the power to silence corporate critics through economic pressure? Or did he pass on criticizing China because they’ve been cooperative lately in investigating corruption by family members of certain former U.S. officials?
Michael Pillsbury is an “informal” advisor to Trump on China, a trade hawk in the mold of Peter Navarro. He was in Beijing last week. Guess what subject came up.
“I got a quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese,” [Michael] Pillsbury told the Financial Times…
“I tried to bring up the topic in Beijing,” Mr Pillsbury told the [Fox Business channel]. “I’ve never seen them get so secretive in my entire life. They would discuss ICBM warheads sooner than talk about what Hunter Biden was doing in China with [former] vice-president Biden.”…
Mr Pillsbury declined to say whether he was asked to raise the issue by the president. The White House did not respond to a request for comment…
Asked to provide details about the information he received from his Chinese contacts, Mr Pillsbury would only say that it related to a $1.5bn payment from the Bank of China. That figure matches the amount that Mr Trump last week claimed Hunter Biden received from China — a statement that has not been backed up with any evidence.
Trump mentioned the sum of $1.5 billion last week in connection with Hunter Biden and China but it’s unclear where he got that number. The NYT notes that $1.5 billion happens to be the amount that a Chinese private equity firm was trying to raise in 2014; Hunter Biden sits on the board of that firm and owns 10 percent of it. The Bank of China is its biggest shareholder. The theory, I guess, is that the Chinese government is or was laundering bribes to Hunter Biden disguised as returns on investment in the firm, presumably to buy influence with his dad. But there’s no evidence of that. Did Pillsbury get some or is he just trying to mess with Joe Biden’s head in chattering about information on Hunter?
Either way, it’s an … interesting strategy to tell the media that a foreign state is giving you “background” on Biden’s son after the president encouraged that state to investigate him when Democrats are on the verge of impeaching Trump for exactly that offense in another context. Marco Rubio has taken to saying lately that Trump calling on China to investigate the Bidens was “inappropriate” but that ultimately it’s no big deal because it wasn’t a “real proposal,” just a bit of presidential trolling to bait the media. Now that he knows that Pillsbury has actually received information about Hunter Biden from China — and is being coy about whether the president himself asked him to raise the issue — does Marco want to revisit his opinion?
Here’s something else on the wires today. It’s not directly related to Ukraine but consider the substance of what Trump’s being accused of here.
President Donald Trump pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help persuade the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was a client of Rudy Giuliani, according to three people familiar with the 2017 meeting in the Oval Office.
Tillerson refused, arguing it would constitute interference in an ongoing investigation of the trader, Reza Zarrab, according to the people. They said other participants in the Oval Office were shocked by the request.
Tillerson immediately repeated his objections to then-chief of staff John Kelly in a hallway conversation just outside the Oval Office, emphasizing that the request would be illegal.
A high government official attempts to use the power of his office to disrupt a criminal investigation as a personal favor to the target of that investigation. That’s what Joe Biden is accused of in Ukraine — in Trump’s telling, he pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor probing corruption at Burisma because he was afraid the probe might eventually reach Hunter Biden. Meanwhile, according to this Bloomberg story, Trump asked his chief diplomat to pressure prosecutors at the Justice Department into dropping a probe into Rudy Giuliani’s friend. In each case the goal is to spare a crony from legal consequences simply because he has a connection to the White House.
Is that going to end up tacked onto the Democrats’ articles of impeachment? If nothing else, “Trump did exactly what he accused Biden of doing” is a good talking point for them.
Exit question: Does China want Trump reelected next year? The easiest counterargument to the Pillsbury story is that it makes no sense that they would be trying to help Trump defeat Biden. Of the two, Trump is by far the bigger China hawk. Trump’s the one who’s damaged their economy with a protracted trade war. If anything, China might be inclined to offer Biden dirt on Trump, right?
I don’t know. Trump is certainly more of a threat economically than a Democrat would be, but arguably he’s less of a threat militarily than Democrats are. He’s telegraphed repeatedly via his outreach to North Korea and Iran how reluctant he is to go to war, preferring diplomacy even with the world’s worst rogue regimes. And he’s waaaaaaaay less of a believer in international alliances than virtually every prominent Democrat is. One of the reasons Obama pursued TPP at the end of his presidency was because he thought a trade alliance between the U.S. and China’s neighbords in the Far East would work to contain China’s regional influence. Trump left TPP. And he’s talked before about withdrawing U.S. troops from Japan and the Korean peninsula. And he’s made his disdain for NATO, America’s most significant military alliance, repeatedly clear. A second term for Trump might mean a protracted trade war with the U.S. but it might also see American withdrawal from various theaters — including the Far East — which would give China a freer hand to operate militarily in Hong Kong and Taiwan, among other places.
And maybe the trade war won’t be protracted. China understands that Trump is under pressure to end it sooner rather than later to spare American manufacturing and agriculture any more grief. Odds are no worse than fair that Trump will make a bad deal sometime next year to end the standoff purely in the interest of being able to tout the end of tariffmania on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that a Democratic president wouldn’t continue the trade war if elected. Elizabeth Warren is a populist too and a skeptic of free trade, remember. And often policies passed by one administration have a certain inertia in persisting in succeeding administrations, even when they’re managed by the other party. (The words “Afghanistan” and “ObamaCare” come to mind.) China may believe that it’ll meet more hostility on balance from a Democratic president than it will from Trump, particularly if it earns his good favor by lending him a hand quietly in his reelection effort.