Trump’s Flip-Flop on China Is Worth Investigating

Donald Trump’s biggest flip-flop from candidate to president has been his approach to China. In both the lead-up to his decision to run for office and during the election, he continually painted that country as our enemy, with claims like this:

We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.

Candidate Trump promised to get tough with China, including a commitment to label the country as a currency manipulator. But as soon as he was elected, all of that was forgotten and now he consistently claims that he and President Xi Jinping have a fantastic relationship. He even went so far as to blame the U.S. for our trade deficit during his visit to China.

It is worth keeping in mind that this president is easily manipulated, but this flip-flop appears to go much deeper than that. It is why this portion of the Steele dossier—which has gotten almost no attention—has always stood out to me.

Adam Entous and Evan Osnos may have shed some light on that in their reporting on Jared Kushner as China’s trump card. The president initially made Kushner his point-person for contacts.

In early 2017, shortly after Jared Kushner moved into his new office in the West Wing of the White House, he began receiving guests. One visitor who came more than once was Cui Tiankai, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, a veteran diplomat with a postgraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University. When, during previous Administrations, Cui had visited the White House, his hosts received him with a retinue of China specialists and note-takers. Kushner, President Trump’s 37-year-old son-in-law and one of his senior advisers, preferred smaller gatherings.

They note that Russia isn’t the only country that runs “influence operations.”

By now, Americans are accustomed to reports of Russia’s efforts to influence American politics, but, in the intelligence community, China’s influence operations are a source of equal concern. In recent years, the FBI and the CIA have dedicated increased resources to tracking efforts by the Chinese government to spy on or to enlist Western officials in pursuit of their policy goals…“The Chinese influence operations are more long-term, broader in scope, and are generally designed to achieve a more diffuse goal than the Russians’ are,” Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst who specializes in China, said. “To be unkind to the Russians, you’d say they are more crass.”

They also note some of Kushner’s previous business dealings with China.

Through his work, Kushner had established links to China. A Kushner project in Jersey City, which opened in November, 2016, reportedly received about fifty million dollars, nearly a quarter of its financing, from Chinese investors who are not publicly named, through a U.S. immigration program known as EB-5, which allows wealthy foreigners to obtain visas by investing in American projects. Kushner was also an investor, alongside prominent Chinese and Hong Kong businessmen, in multiple companies. He and a brother, Joshua Kushner, co-founded Cadre, a real-estate investment firm, which received funding from Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba. (The scope of investors behind Kushner projects is unknown, because the company does not disclose the names.) Ivanka Trump has her own business endeavors in China, where some of her branded handbags, shoes, and clothes are manufactured.

Kushner was put in charge of managing Trump’s first meeting with Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago, where the focus was on “bonding” between the two leaders.

In the event, China overwhelmingly achieved its objectives: a soft-focus summit with regal photo ops and little talk of trade and other touchy subjects. It was also an auspicious occasion for the Kushner family. While Xi met with Trump, Beijing regulators approved three trademark applications from Ivanka’s company, to sell bags, jewelry, and spa services. Ivanka is also an adviser to the President, and her deals with the Chinese were hardly unusual. Since Trump assumed office, the Chinese government has approved scores of trademark applications by the Trump Organization.

With all of that in mind, it is interesting to note that as Steve Bannon was in the process of being forced out of the White House, he called Robert Kuttner to specifically talk about China.

“I’ve followed your writing for years and I think you and I are in the same boat when it comes to China.  You absolutely nailed it.”

“We’re at economic war with China,” he added. “It’s in all their literature. They’re not shy about saying what they’re doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path…

“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

There are probably multiple reasons for the war between Bannon and Kushner that we’ve all heard so much about. But their diametrically opposed views about China are probably the heart of it all. Bannon was obviously furious because he thought that, in Trump, he’d found an ally to go along with his commitment to an economic war with China. But things didn’t turn out that way.

Maybe Christopher Steele got this one all wrong and the Trump campaign wasn’t worried about the exposure of the family’s business dealing with China. But it is worth noting that the president initially put his son-in-law (who also had extensive business dealings with China) in charge of contacts with that country and Trump went on to do a complete flip-flop on his railings about them. That is worth investigating. Russia might not be the only country that has dirt on this administration. Perhaps China has just been more subtle in how they use it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .