We all know that instead of taking the coronavirus seriously, President Trump irresponsibly accepted the word of the Chinese regime and spent several precious weeks praising them instead of preparing and ramping up production of needed supplies.
We’ve seen where that got us. As of today, there have been more than a million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 60,000 deaths—the figure that less than two weeks ago the president was describing as the likely total death toll. A trillion dollars have been shoveled into relief and stimulus, and the Fed’s printer is still going “brrr.” There are astroturfed protests cropping up and demanding “reopening” for a controversy-starved media.
These protests bear some superficial resemblance to the Tea Party protests of eleven years ago—but make no mistake: These are not the same folks who were concerned about cronyism, bailouts, the Fed, the debt, and wild spending. Sure, you might see some folks toting Gadsden flags, but many of today’s protesters seem to be just professionally aggrieved. In reality, the folks who are hardest hit by the shutdowns mostly don’t have time to protest. (Have you seen the unemployment numbers?) Besides, remember how concerned the Tea Party folks were about Obamacare’s “death panels”? Are we to believe these are the same people now demanding their elected officials sacrifice the elderly for the sake of the economy?
Speaking of the protesters, remember that viral photo of the screaming faces in Ohio from a couple weeks back? One of them was a Republican state senate candidate, who got a lot of attention for appearing in that picture. Did it help her primary challenge? Nope, she was clobbered, 65-35. There may be a lesson in that for anyone who thinks campaigning as a critic of COVID-19 precautions is a winning strategy.
These protesters are going to be foot soldiers in the 2020 GOP ground war over China. Because this election is going to be all about China. It’s the natural course of politics: Trump needs a villain and who better than China? After all, you can’t paint Joe Biden as a socialist when you’re printing money faster than you’re making N-95 masks.
But President Trump and his family have an interesting history with China, so before we are subjected to President Trump’s earworm pronunciation of the country’s name, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
More often than not, when the president and his sycophants accuse opponents of something, the accusation is something that Trump is himself guilty of. It lets them say: See? Other people do it. Trump’s not so bad, he’s only as bad as everybody else. Maybe even better! It’s bizarre, I know, but them’s the laws of whataboutism physics.
So it is with the Trump team’s criticisms of Hunter Biden: It’s not just that his business dealings and various problems could complicate things for Joe Biden, it’s rather that he provides a foil for the Trump children. It’s about preparing for the eventuality of having to concede that the president is the nepotist-in-chief.
And even the people throwing around the Hunter Biden accusations don’t think Joe Biden is going to make Hunter his chief policy advisor for everything, like Donald Trump has done with his son-in-law. Or put him in a nebulous White House role, as Trump has with his daughter. Or even heavily involve him in his presidential campaign, as Trump has done with his other children, their spouses, and girlfriends.
Eric Trump once said that nepotism is “a beautiful thing.” Let’s see just how beautiful it is—and what it has to do with China.
Perhaps the best example of nepotism in the Trump administration is Jared Kushner, the husband of eldest daughter Ivanka Trump. Both have been appointed to high-level advisory positions in the White House.
Despite lacking qualifications to be appointed to anything—other than the board of the Charles Kushner Center for Kids of Billionaires Who Can’t Make Good Business Decisions and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too—Jared, because he is married to President Trump’s daughter, has seemingly been put in charge of everything.
Peace in the Middle East? On it.
The opioid epidemic? Consider it solved.
Diplomacy with Mexico while trying to Build The Wall™? No hay problema.
What about trade with China? Add it to the list.
Reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs? Salute.
Criminal justice reform? A version of that became law!
So Jared has a lot on his plate. What’s that got to do with China?
Shortly after President Trump was inaugurated, it was reported that Jared and Ivanka were targets of Chinese influence campaigns. But, before his father-in-law ended up in the Oval, Jared was in talks with “Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial behemoth with estimated assets of $285 billion and an ownership structure shrouded in mystery.”
If you’re a Chinese spy, and your geopolitical opponent’s son-in-law has a bunch of vulnerabilities, why not target them? Like a GEICO ad that writes itself, if you’re a Chinese spy, it’s what you do. Especially when the president’s son-in-law has become “Mr. China” and a confidant and friend of China’s ambassador to the United States.
If you want to understand how Kushner might be vulnerable to Chinese pressure, keep in mind that he’s a lot like Donald Trump: His money came from his corrupt father, he is bad at business, and when it came time to be honest and divest himself, he only did it at the last possible second. President Trump handed off operations of his company to his sons, while Jared divested, only partially, a little too late, some even as late as last month.
And all this after forgetting to disclose a bunch of assets from his financial disclosures, as the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell noted: a form he revised 39 times over the course of a few months. Rampell writes: “Maybe Kushner really did forget all those assets, including a stake in a start-up valued at $5 million to $25 million. Just as maybe he really did accidentally submit a security-clearance form that left off more than 100 contacts with foreign nationals.” Sure. Maybe. (President Trump later intervened to grant him a security clearance, giving him access to government secrets.)
You can understand the reluctance of former White House chief of staff John Kelly in granting this guy a security clearance, let alone putting him in charge of large swaths of the administration’s most high-profile initiatives.
As forgetful as Jared may be, and as corrupt as Trump may be, it’s not like either forgets what assets he owned until five minutes ago. And when you keep things in the family, as the Trumps and Kushners do, you’re going to run into some problems.
Case in point: What went down with Kushner’s sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, in 2017. What happens if your brother is put in charge of handling a lot of trade policy with China, and he still has an interest in your company? It all gets very complicated when you say you don’t have an interest in something you sold back to your family trust, except you’ve still apparently got a “legacy contingent right” to be able to invest again a later time. Tell me that’s not a conflict.
Jared apparently quickly realized it, and dropped that legacy contingent three days after his sister held a conference for wealthy Chinese to buy their way to citizenship through the E5-B investment program and name-dropped her relationship with Jared in the promotional materials. Oops!
Back in those early days of the Trump presidency, Jared was going to be the inside man that China trusted to try and improve relations, along with then-Secretary of State Tillerson and old hand Henry Kissinger. A month before his sister’s E5-B conference, Kushner led a high-stakes meeting with President Xi which took place—where else?—at Mar-a-Lago.
Of course, since then, relations with China have deteriorated. Trump launched his trade war with China, which has cost U.S. consumers billions. (The Congressional Budget Office projected the tariffs would cost your household more than $1,200. Incidentally, the recent stimulus checks were for about that amount.) These direct reductions to household income via higher prices and other economic costs are in addition to the nearly $30 billion in direct aid to farmers who bore the brunt of China’s retaliatory tariffs.
As recently as January of this year, Trump was still signaling his hope that he could get a second phase of a trade deal with China, one that pulls back on his trade war. Obviously, that’s not likely to happen now. So much for “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
Jared is not the only Trump family member with a complicated relationship with China. His wife, Ivanka, was granted a number of patents from China—several shortly before her father’s election and several more between the election and inauguration. Now facing consumer backlash due to politics, Ms. Trump stopped active business in 2018, saying that she doesn’t “know when or if I will ever return to the business.” You don’t have to have an MBA to know when returning to the business is good: the second Trump leaves office. No matter the circumstances, there will be a big MAGA market for those shoes. Like the old Men’s Wearhouse guy said: “I guarantee it.”
There remains a lot that we don’t know about the Trump family’s business dealings with China. We don’t know the extent to which Jared Kushner’s fortune is tied up there. Like the “legacy contingent right” and the complicated nature of being a billionaire, some of these things can pay off down the line. Again, Kushner’s seriously flawed security-clearance background check is relevant here. Remember that his clearance was in limbo until his father-in-law ordered it be granted. We don’t know the details, but it appears that the career officials tasked with preventing people with potential conflicts or security vulnerabilities from getting access to our secrets were prevented from doing their jobs.
Were he denied a clearance, it wouldn’t have prevented Jared from getting access to the decision-maker and influencing him. But in any other administration, it would have precluded him from getting his job. Trump’s bailout of Kushner’s personal security clearance liabilities is a big red flag.
And the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which handles financial disclosures, is largely toothless to enforce failed disclosures because, as former OGE director Walter Schaub put it last year, beyond making suggestions, it “lacks real enforcement authority.” (Former Minnesota Rep. Gerry Sikorski once famously called it a “toothless terrier on Valium.”) It’s quite possible that there are many potential conflicts of interest in Jared Kushner’s fortunes. What little we do know, from what he did disclose, shows broad ranges in asset value. But we don’t know who the other investors (if any) in those projects are, or their possible leverage. These details are left up to investigative reporters, and perhaps historians someday in the future, to look into. Clearly, our security-clearance and financial-disclosure laws were not written for an administration like this one.
Nepotism, graft, and potential corruption among candidates and their families are rarely high-priority issues for many voters. But in this election cycle, since you’re likely to hear Trump and the Republicans talk about Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son Hunter, keep in mind the Trump family’s own complicated past and potential future relationships with China.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kushner’s repeatedly revised financial disclosures were done as part of his security clearance investigation, rather than in conjunction.