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Trump’s false claims about Hunter Biden’s China dealings

President Trump points to Hunter Biden's business dealings in China and Ukraine as evidence of corruption at a news conference on Sept. 25. (Video: The Washington Post)

“When Biden’s son walks out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund, and the biggest funds in the world can’t get money out of China, and he’s there for one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two, I think that’s a horrible thing. I think it’s a horrible thing.”

— President Trump, remarks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Sept. 25, 2019

“Ask how his son made millions of dollars from Ukraine, made millions of dollars from China, even though he had no expertise whatsoever.”

— Trump, in remarks to reporters with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sept. 24

“The son took money from China — a lot of money from China.”

— Trump, remarks to reporters at the United Nations, Sept. 23

We’ve been writing a lot about Trump’s false claims concerning Ukraine, Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. Now let’s turn our attention to Trump’s repeated suggestions that Hunter struck it rich with a sketchy deal in China.

We had fact-checked this back in May, but as the Ukraine controversy has heated up, it’s also become a regular staple of Trump’s attacks on Biden. So here’s an expanded look that takes into account new information and an updated Pinocchio rating.

The Facts

First, we will stipulate that any child of a prominent politician needs to be wary of even the appearance of a conflict of interest between his or her business interests and their parent’s political position. Hunter Biden, as detailed in a New Yorker profile published in July, has had a checkered life and yet has managed to score business deals in countries — in particular Ukraine and China — that might not have materialized without the prominence of his father.

Similarly, Ivanka Trump was granted Chinese trademarks days before and after President Trump vowed to save jobs at ZTE, a major Chinese telecom, in 2018. She also was granted Chinese trademarks in 2017, on the same day she sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping at a dinner.

Trump, of course, chose to focus on Biden’s son, not his own daughter. He has claimed that Hunter Biden “made millions of dollars from China” and “took money from China — a lot of money.” He also said that Hunter Biden walked out of China with “$1.5 billion in a fund … after one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two.”

So let’s back up a bit. Hunter Biden launched a consulting firm in 2008. Then, in 2009, he co-founded another company, Rosemont Seneca Partners, with Christopher Heinz, stepson of then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), and Devon Archer, a Yale classmate of Heinz’s. At times, Hunter Biden and Archer did deals that did not include Heinz, who apparently was more wary of business arrangements that might attract public attention.

Archer and Hunter Biden, for instance, connected with Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund. In June 2013, according to the New Yorker, Li, Archer and other partners (including Chinese entities) signed a memorandum of understanding to create a fund called BHR Partners. Hunter Biden originally was on an advisory board for BHR and was not an equity owner in the fund while Joe Biden was vice president. He later acquired a 10 percent interest in the entity overseeing the fund.

The supposed size of the China fund — $1.5 billion — comes courtesy of “Secret Empires,” a 2018 book by conservative author Peter Schweizer, who earlier had targeted Hillary Clinton in the book “Clinton Cash.” The Fact Checker spent a lot of time in the 2016 campaign chasing down dubious claims touted by Schweizer, such as about the Uranium One deal.

Affiliates of the advisory firm had said they planned to raise $1.5 billion, but it appears the fundraising fell far short of that.

In December 2013, Hunter Biden and one of his daughters flew from Japan to China with Joe Biden on Air Force Two. (This is what Trump referred to when he said: “He’s there for one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two, I think that’s a horrible thing.”)

The vice president had diplomacy on his agenda. Hunter Biden was not spotted much, though Schweizer makes a big deal about Hunter following his father into a shop as the vice president buys an ice cream bar.

“The vice president raised his Magnum ice cream bar to show the world’s press how personable Joe Biden could be,” Schweizer wrote. “Intentionally or not, Hunter Biden was showing the Chinese that he had guanxi [connections].”

The New Yorker detailed that Schweizer’s claims about the China deal are disputed by the Biden camp.

Schweizer asserts that “Rosemont Seneca Partners had been negotiating an exclusive deal with Chinese officials, which they signed approximately ten days after Hunter visited China with his father.” In fact, the deal had been signed before the trip—according to the BHR representative, it was a business license that came through shortly afterward—and Hunter was not a signatory. Hunter and Archer said that they never met with any Chinese officials about the fund. And the deal wasn’t with Rosemont Seneca Partners but with a new holding company, established solely by Archer; Christopher Heinz was not part of the BHR transaction. Schweizer also asserts that the Chinese fund was “lucrative” for Hunter, but Hunter and his business partners told me that he has yet to receive a payment from the company.

In May, the Fact Checker also reported that Hunter Biden had not received any payments from the deal.

Still, the New Yorker said that Hunter Biden’s behavior at one point raised questions among the vice president’s staff about whether he was leveraging access for his benefit.

According to a Beijing-based BHR representative, Hunter, shortly after arriving in Beijing, on December 4th, helped arrange for Li to shake hands with his father in the lobby of the American delegation’s hotel. Afterward, Hunter and Li had what both parties described as a social meeting. Hunter told me that he didn’t understand why anyone would have been concerned about this. “How do I go to Beijing, halfway around the world, and not see them for a cup of coffee?” he said.

Twelve days after he flew to Beijing, Hunter Biden joined the board of BHR. George Mesires, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, said in a July interview with The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish that his client’s role has been misconstrued. He said Hunter Biden was on the board of the advisory firm that did not directly invest, but instead advised those who did.

“To date, Mr. Biden has not received any return or compensation on account of this investment or his position on the board of directors,” Mesires told The Fact Checker after Trump’s remarks with Zelensky. “The characterization of Mr. Biden as owning a $1.5 billion private equity firm funded by the Chinese, or suggesting that Mr. Biden has earned millions of dollars from the firm is a gross misrepresentation of Mr. Biden’s role with BHR.”

Mesires said that the investment management company “was capitalized from various sources with a total of 30 million RMB [Chinese Renminbi], or about $4.2 million, not $1.5 billion.” Because Biden acquired a 10 percent minority interest, his “capital commitment is approximately $420,000,” Mesires said.

The Pinocchio Test

The president says Hunter Biden “walked out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund” and earned “millions” of dollars from the deal. There is no evidence to support those claims.

One could argue Hunter Biden has been trading off his father’s name, and certainly arranging a handshake between a business partner and the vice president in China raises eyebrows. But Hunter Biden did not raise money for the fund; instead, he was on a board that advised potential investors. He did not obtain an equity stake until after his father was no longer vice president — and that investment of less than half a million dollars has not yet yielded a payoff for Hunter Biden, according to his attorney.

Trump earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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