Public Citizen Report: ‘Follow the Money: Did Administration Officials’ Financial Entanglements With China Delay Trump’s Promised Tough-on-China Trade Policy?’
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the administration is poised to announce long-awaited action on a China trade investigation launched last summer, Public Citizen released a report revealing Trump administration Cabinet members’ and top advisors’ longstanding personal financial entanglements with the Chinese government and government-connected firms. The report raises the question of whether the lack of action during President Donald Trump’s first year in office despite China being candidate Trump’s top target of trade wrath is better explained by the current or past Chinese financial entanglements of numerous top administration officials rather than an ideological battle over trade in the White House.
The report reveals the widespread business connections – some ongoing – between Trump Cabinet officials and other senior staff and Chinese government-run or connected firms that may have affected administration trade policies on China. For instance, despite pledging to divest from two Chinese shipping firms in which he was invested, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ financial transaction reports do not include the sale of an estimated $125 million stake in Navigator Holdings, which operates a fleet of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker ships that could benefit from several gas-related investment deals with Chinese government-linked firms that Ross announced since becoming Commerce secretary.
“The exits of White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will significantly diminish the top staff with past or current significant financial stakes in China and with Chinese government entities, although Ross remains,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Will changes in personnel lead to changes in policy with the recent trade enforcement actions paving the way to creation of the comprehensive new China trade policy that is decades overdue?”
Only on China trade were administration trade actions during Trump’s first year opposite of Trump’s campaign pledges and rhetoric. Even Trump’s bellicose China trade rhetoric from the campaign was replaced by an uncharacteristically subdued tone. Rumors have raged since Thanksgiving that the administration would impose punitive measures against Chinese technology theft via a Section 301 investigation that the administration initiated in August. But time and again, action was delayed.
During Trump’s China state visit, Ross gleefully touted Goldman Sachs’ new $5 billion joint fund with the Chinese government’s main investment arm and plans by other state-owned and state-linked firms to buy assets in sensitive U.S. infrastructure, energy and food sectors. Such investments may facilitate the Chinese government “Made in China 2025” plan to dominate the global economy but would seem antithetical to Trump’s promised “tough on China” agenda.
A review of the top-level staff of the Trump administration shows stark conflicts of interests not just relating to business in or with China, but with the Chinese government. These ties and conflicts include:
- Previous or current ownership of shares in companies profiting from Chinese state-owned investment in the United States (Ross, Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Trump Senior Adviser Jared Kushner);
- Investments in companies doing business in China that may not have been divested at the time an official was engaged in policymaking that could impact his investments (Ross);
- Co-investments with Chinese state-owned investors that may not have been divested at the time an official was engaged in policymaking that could impact his investments (Ross);
- Previous direct ownership of stakes in Chinese state-owned companies (Cohn and Tillerson);
- Ownership of businesses awaiting approvals for pending trademark applications in China (Ivanka Trump); and more.
The new report provides a compilation of information that is available about these links; many investments might not be disclosed as they may be held in investment vehicles in which the underlying assets are not known.