PROOF OF CORRUPTION

BRIBERY, IMPEACHMENT, AND PANDEMIC IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

SETH ABRAMSON

PROOF OF CORRUPTION

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Precisely thirty seconds before Trump publicly asks China to investigate Joe Biden in early October 2019, he says the following about his ongoing trade negotiations with the Chinese government: “If they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous, tremendous power.”52 Thereafter, Trump says all of the following, having just urged Ukraine to launch a “major investigation into the Bidens”: “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine”; “I think Biden is going down . . . [and] you may very well find that there are many other countries that [the Bidens] scammed, just like they scammed China and Ukraine”; and “China for so many years has had a sweetheart deal where China rips off the USA—because they deal [with people like] Biden.”53 Trump adds that while he has not brought up the prospect of investigating the Bidens with Chinese president Xi Jinping—a claim that cannot be verified, given that the president has hidden the transcript of his prior discussion about Biden with Xi on a secure server—he might well do so in the future. “I haven’t [raised it],” Trump tells reporters, “but it’s certainly something we can start thinking about because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny where billions of dollars is taken out of his country by a guy [Hunter Biden] that just got kicked out of the Navy. He got kicked out of the Navy. All of a sudden he’s getting billions of dollars. You know what they call that? They call that a payoff.”54

While the Washington Post will report that “it’s not clear exactly what Trump is alleging here, nor has it been when Trump has previously invoked China while talking about the Bidens,” it will add that, “more than [Trump’s] request to Ukraine, this one has the potential for a really corrupt appearance . . . [because] Trump is currently engaged in a trade war with China.”55 The Post notes that not only does Trump have “significant leverage” over China, but it is leverage that he himself generated by launching a significant economic conflict with America’s chief geopolitical rival—a trade war that has brutalized U.S. manufacturing, agriculture, and small business.56 “China could very logically now believe that further escalations [in the trade war] might be tied to whether it takes the actions Trump wants. Any future decisions could be colored accordingly,” writes the Post.57 The newspaper imagines a situation in which information about Hunter Biden’s business interests becomes public via an uncertain source, and shortly thereafter Trump ends his trade war with China—with American voters having no way to know if the two events are related, or indeed whether Trump has put numberless Americans through prolonged economic degradation either to gain an advantage in his own and his family’s personal business dealings with Beijing or to advance his political career.58

Following Trump’s request that China investigate the Bidens, the Post quotes Larry Noble, the Federal Election Commission’s former general counsel, as observing, “I don’t think it is credible that Trump has some other reason for seeking foreign investigations of Biden other than to help his 2020 campaign. It is the only context in which Biden is relevant to Trump.”59 The Post concludes that, following the Mueller Report and Trump’s awareness of it, and the Ukraine imbroglio and Trump’s awareness of the consequences it produced for both him and the nation, with China “it’s hard to argue that (a) Trump wasn’t aware that soliciting help from a foreign power was problematic, (b) there’s no or little value in what Trump is soliciting and, of course, (c) that Trump isn’t soliciting electoral help.”60 The conclusion reached by the Post is that none of the reasons why Trump’s son Don “wasn’t charged” by Mueller for his controversial June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian nationals could apply to Trump’s solicitation of aid from Beijing.61 Chuck Todd of NBC offers an even starker response to Trump’s entreaty to Xi Jinping, saying on-air on Meet the Press, “I don’t say this lightly, but let’s be frank: a national nightmare is upon us. The basic rules of our democracy are under attack, from the president.”62

In October 2019, a New York Times survey of “ten former White House chiefs of staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama [finds] that none recalled any circumstance under which the White House had solicited or accepted political help from other countries,” with all ten of the survey subjects saying “they would have considered the very idea [of soliciting foreign political aid] out of bounds.”63

 

Shortly after Trump’s remarks about a Chinese investigation of the Bidens, Secretary of State Pompeo is asked “whether other countries [besides Ukraine] . . . might be pressured to help the American president,” to which Pompeo responds, “This is what we do,” adding that it is “totally right.”64 “Nations work together,” he says, “and they say, ‘Boy, goodness gracious, if you can help me with X, we’ll help you achieve Y.’ ”65 Several weeks later, he goes further, insisting that the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, including Trump’s invitation for foreign involvement in a prospective investigation involving his political rival, was “consistent” with administration policy.66 Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton will publicly demur from Pompeo’s assessment, declaring darkly that America’s “national security priorities” are “under attack from within”; in summer 2020, Bolton’s White House memoir will reveal that in June 2019 Trump directly “plead[ed] with Xi to ensure he’d win [reelection in November].”67

Asked about Trump’s China comments, Vice President Pence goes further than Pompeo in condoning them, even echoing Trump’s call for foreign investigations by telling reporters that “the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States, or his family, profited from his position”—a stance he does not take with respect to the Trumps and their business dealings in China and elsewhere.68 Whatever their motivation or intent, Pence’s comments, like Trump’s own, seem, in their particularity to Biden, to preclude any subsequent claims by either Trump or his vice president that they are only concerned about corruption broadly writ in Ukraine and China. Just so, Pompeo’s public statements on possible clandestine negotiations between Trump and China over Biden dirt intimate that Trump and his administration— as will be alleged during the president’s January 2020 impeachment trial—do not distinguish between a policy quid pro quo undertaken in the interests of U.S. national security and a quid pro quo intended to advance the personal interests of a U.S. president.

Much like Pence, Ukraine scandal witness and Trump ally Sen. Ron Johnson tells reporters, according to The Hill, that “there was no misconduct in Trump’s call . . . for China to investigate Biden and his son”; Johnson states that “if there’s potential criminal activity, the President of the United States is our chief law enforcement officer. We have proper agreements with countries to investigate potential crimes so I don’t think there’s anything improper about doing that.”69 Johnson does not cite any other investigations of U.S. citizens that the president is seeking abroad, whether in China, Ukraine, or elsewhere. When Johnson is asked, in the same interview in which he discusses a possible Chinese investigation of the Bidens, about Trump’s solicitation of similar election aid from Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, he responds that “it’s Trump being Trump.”70 Meanwhile, the Washington Post terms Trump’s call for China to investigate his potential 2020 presidential campaign rival the president’s “most brazen [request] yet”—as well as “the most problematic.”71

 

While Trump’s and Pence’s statements give the impression that the Trump administration hasn’t yet formally raised the Bidens with the Chinese either publicly or via a back channel, a day after Trump’s controversial statements his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, refuses to answer a direct question from CNN about whether he has discussed the Bidens as part of his trade negotiations with China.72 Navarro will also refuse to address—or contest—prior reporting from CNN that in fact, despite his claims of the day before, Trump had already discussed Biden with Chinese president Xi Jinping in a June call that also involved trade negotiations and a promise by Trump not to discuss ongoing protests in Hong Kong in public.73 A visibly angry Navarro goes so far as to call questions about the summer 2019 Trump-Xi call and Trump’s public solicitation of election aid from China “hectoring,” an “interrogation,” and “witch hunt, part two”—an unexpectedly testy reply that echoes the Trump team’s defensiveness over both Russia and Ukraine.74 When he is asked if he himself has had, in the midst of trade negotiations with the Chinese, “contacts with Chinese officials” in Beijing on the subject of investigating Joe Biden, Navarro makes an unexplained reference to private conversations at the White House: “I will never talk about what happens inside the White House.”75

 

China’s response to Trump’s entreaty is a comforting one: “[China] will not interfere in the internal affairs of the U.S.”76 This position is undercut, however, by February 2018 reporting that China is one of four countries that has discussed attempting to secretly manipulate the Trump administration by “influencing [Jared] Kushner to their advantage” and “taking advantage of his complex business arrangements . . . and lack of foreign policy experience”—a clandestine strategy that also appears applicable to the president, whose volume of Chinese interests is commensurate with or greater than Kushner’s.77 Indeed, that the Chinese government is looking for what the Washington Post terms “leverage” over one of the top foreign policy advisers in the Trump administration underscores that the ruling class in Beijing is by no means above appealing to Trump’s venality via the promise of personal benefits.78

On October 10, 2019, a Daily Beast report confirms that those skeptical of the Chinese government had good reason to doubt that Beijing would honor its agreement to not offer illegal election assistance to President Trump. Per the digital media outlet, Trump adviser Michael Pillsbury confesses on October 9 that “China handed him intelligence on Hunter Biden in the same week Donald Trump publicly urged Beijing to investigate Joe Biden’s son.”79 Pillsbury says he got the information on a trip to China, but does not reveal whether he was sent on the trip by the president, who had previously called Pillsbury “probably the leading authority on China.”80 Asked by the Financial Times for specifics of what he received, Pillsbury replies, “I got quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese”; per the Financial Times, the information “relate[s] to a $1.5bn payment from the Bank of China”—a figure, the British media outlet writes, that “matches the amount that Mr. Trump last week claimed Hunter Biden received from China.”81

The revelation that the Chinese government has handed over intelligence on Hunter Biden to the Trump administration in response to Trump’s request that they do so comes a day after Pillsbury reveals to the Fox Business Network (FBN), according to Daily Beast reporting, that he “raised the issue of the Bidens”—not just Hunter Biden, but Joe Biden as well—“ during [a] trip to China”; as the Daily Beast observes of a McClatchy interview Pillsbury gives the day after his FBN interview, Pillsbury “declined to say whether he was instructed to raise the issue [of the Bidens] by the president.”82 After the Trump adviser’s statement about receiving intelligence on the Bidens from the Chinese government goes viral, he attempts to deny, during a C-SPAN interview, that he ever told the Financial Times he’d received such intelligence. The Times thereafter tweets out an email exchange with Pillsbury “confirming,” per the Daily Beast, that Pillsbury had indeed “claimed he had [received such intelligence].”83

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