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This Hunter Biden deal in a foreign country really does look bad

We should require all candidates for high office to report their foreign financial interests and those of their immediate family members.

How should we think about the curious case of Hunter Biden?

According to a report last week from The Washington Post, the president’s son signed a contract with an executive with the Chinese energy company CEFC in August 2017. According to the newspaper, “Over the course of 14 months, the Chinese energy conglomerate and its executives paid $4.8 million to entities controlled by Hunter Biden and his uncle, according to government records, court documents and newly disclosed bank statements, as well as emails contained on a copy of a laptop hard drive that purportedly once belonged to Hunter Biden.” Hunter’s uncle James Biden is the president’s brother, and the contract in question, according to The Post, provided Hunter Biden a one-time retainer of $500,000, in addition to monthly stipends of $100,000 for him and $65,000 for his uncle.

How should we think about the curious case of Hunter Biden?

The Post says neither Hunter Biden nor his attorney responded to numerous messages and that when James Biden was reached on his mobile phone and asked about the CEFC deal, he declined to comment.

As the report explains, CEFC, which is financed by Chinese government development banks, is tied to China’s Communist Party and linked to the People’s Liberation Army. According to the newspaper, its review “did not find evidence that President Joe Biden personally benefited from or knew details” about his son’s and his brother’s CEFC dealings. The deal happened after Joe Biden was vice president and before he announced he was running for president. The White House didn’t respond on the record, according to the newspaper, but it pointed to previous statements that said the president “has never even considered being involved in business with his family, nor in any overseas business whatsoever.”

Far-right Trump lackeys quickly pounced on the Post report and called for a special prosecutor to look at the Biden family, and while that request is obviously politically motivated, all Americans, regardless of party, ought to be asking why we don’t require all candidates for high office to report not only their own foreign financial interests — but also those of their immediate family members.

I asserted during former President Donald Trump’s term that this kind of mandatory financial disclosure — at least for congressional, vice presidential and presidential candidates — would allow the public to more fully vet candidates for the national security risks they could present.

Hunter Biden’s contract with CEFC is questionable not only because of the large sums involved in return for services that he appears ill-suited to provide, but also because of the characters it brought him in contact with. Citing what it calls “verified emails from a purported copy of the laptop hard drive reviewed by the outside experts for The Post,” the newspaper determined that in 2015, while his father was vice president, Hunter Biden was contacted by an intermediary looking to arrange a meeting between him and Ye Jianming, the chairman of CEFC. Ye had been the deputy secretary of the China Association for International Friendly Contact, which a 2011 U.S. congressional report called “a front” for the People’s Liberation Army. CEFC may claim it’s a “private” company, but when it comes to major Chinese entities, there’s no such thing as private and no way to politely decline the strong arm of the Chinese intelligence services.

CEFC may claim it’s a “private” company, but when it comes to major Chinese entities, there’s no such thing.

Ye, according to the newspaper’s investigation, asked Hunter Biden to determine whether another CEFC official was under federal investigation. That official was indeed being investigated by the FBI, which, according to court records, had the official under electronic surveillance. Biden, an attorney, signed an agreement to represent that official in return for a $1 million retainer. When the FBI eventually took his client into custody at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the arrested CEFC executive, according to police records cited by The Post, placed a call to James Biden just nine minutes later. Reuters reported in early 2018 that Ye had been taken in for questioning for suspected economic crimes. The Post reported that Ye couldn’t be reached for comment and that the Chinese Embassy wouldn’t comment on his arrest.

We may never know precisely what executives, said to be affiliated with the Chinese government, thought the Bidens could do for them. But anyone who has spent time working in counterintelligence, as I have, understands that the facts laid out in The Post’s review aren’t unique to the Biden family or to any one political party. This scenario — the Chinese government attempting to get next to people close to power or influence or holding power and influence — repeats itself before, during and after almost every U.S. election cycle, at the city, state and federal levels. It’s all about access and influence, and if you can compromise someone with either access or influence, that’s even better.

In that framework, it made perfect sense for that intermediary to suggest a meeting between Hunter Biden and Ye when he did. While his father was vice president, Hunter Biden would have been a particularly vulnerable target. As The Post describes: “The Bidens were reeling from the May 2015 death of Hunter’s older brother, Beau, and Hunter was struggling with drug use. ‘I was in the throes of addiction,’ Hunter wrote in a memoir published last year. During divorce proceedings with his wife Kathleen, a court filing in the case described ‘outstanding debts [that] are shocking and overwhelming,’ with the couple carrying maxed-out credit cards, double mortgages on both properties they owned and a tax debt of $313,970.”

If China was targeting Hunter Biden, he wasn’t the only one in its sights. In December 2020, after Hunter Biden’s business dealings seem to have ended and just before his father became president, the national intelligence director’s counterintelligence chief warned that associates of the president-elect were already being targeted by China in what was described as “an attack on steroids.”

Even though Republicans are exploiting the situation when they demand that the whole Biden family be investigated, there is valid criticism over why it has taken so long for Democrats and multiple media outlets to acknowledge that Hunter Biden’s problems — at least concerning China — are real.

If China was targeting Hunter Biden, he wasn’t the only one in its sights.

Some of the delay may be because his dealings with the Ukrainian company Burisma were exploited in a smear campaign against his father by the Russians and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. I’ve written about my concerns with this attempt to link Joe Biden to his son’s work in Ukraine, including the fact that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., while he was leading an inquiry into Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma, was warned by the FBI that he, Johnson, was a target of Russian disinformation. But if we ignore the bigger picture here — that China targets U.S. candidates and officeholders and their family members — we’ll miss an opportunity to do something about it.

From George W. Bush’s brother Neil, who was deeply financially entangled with Chinese entities, to candidate Jeb Bush’s super PAC, which benefited, albeit not willfully, from illegal Chinese contributions, to the massive “Chinagate” scandal involving funding for President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign, China is nonpartisan in its attempts to gain political access and influence.

That’s why — particularly with no evidence of wrongdoing by his father — we should be thinking not so much about Hunter Biden but beyond Hunter Biden. The American voter needs far greater transparency into the foreign financial dealings of candidates, their businesses and their family members if we are to ever counter the efforts of adversaries to penetrate political offices.

You won’t hear that from Trump sycophants who are myopically focused on Hunter Biden and his laptop. That’s because any initiative to mandate foreign financial disclosures would expose some ugly truths about their own guy and his family. Transparency is great — unless, of course, you have something to hide. That’s the hypocrisy of thinking only about Hunter Biden.

The president’s son is under federal investigation for possible tax violations, and he’ll have to suffer any related consequences. That’s clear. What isn’t clear is how willing we are to talk about this in a nonpartisan way and to put in place safeguards that would make the family members of our top officials less likely to be targeted by foreign actors.