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What we know about Rep. Eric Swalwell’s ties to an alleged Chinese spy

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) in 2019 had ties with a suspected Chinese spy, which he severed as soon as intelligence officials briefed him on their concerns. (Meg Kinnard/AP)
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An alleged Chinese spy cozied up to a Democratic member of Congress and other politicians for years. The most prominent we know of is Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). Now Republicans are pressuring Democratic leaders to kick him off an intelligence committee, and he’s saying he’s being targeted because he is a frequent critic of President Trump.

Here’s what we know about Swalwell’s interactions with an alleged Chinese spy and the potential political fallout from that.

Who is Swalwell? He’s a prominent Democratic congressman from California. Swalwell, 40, has served in the House for seven years, representing a heavily Democratic district, as one of its younger members. Last year he ran for president. He dropped out a few months into the race after he didn’t gain enough traction for his bid. Since 2015, he’s been on the House Intelligence Committee, which is privy to some of the nation’s top secrets.

What we know about his relationship with an alleged Chinese spy: This woman allegedly tried to get close to California politicians whom the Chinese government deemed up-and-coming, according to Axios, which broke the story this week. One of those politicians was Swalwell, as far back as 2012, when he was a city council member in California, and shortly before he got elected to Congress. Axios dug up Facebook photos of the woman, Fang Fang or Christine Fang, posing with Swalwell and other area politicians, including former members of Congress, at various political functions she regularly attended.

As Swalwell rose in the ranks, Fang became an even bigger supporter. She helped fundraise for his 2014 campaign, Axios reports. And she suggested his office hire an intern, which it did.

What we know about how Swalwell and Fang interacted on substance: Axios reports that U.S. officials don’t think Fang ever got classified information as she cozied up to politicians, including from Swalwell. He is not accused of any wrongdoing. After U.S. intelligence officials briefed him in 2015 on their concerns about Fang, he cut off ties with her. Swalwell said in a statement to Axios this week that he provided information to the FBI about her and that he hasn’t interacted with her in six years. Fang has left the country.

We also know that top members of Congress from both parties got briefed by intelligence officials in 2015 about suspected Chinese spies trying to infiltrate Congress.

What we think China may have gotten out of this: We don’t know. Even if spies don’t get access to the nation’s secrets, they can still gather information on politicians that could be useful. It’s a way to try to get leverage on a politician or government official and potentially use that information against them. (That’s why huge debts or foreign ties or even clandestine affairs are reasons government officials are denied security clearances.)

Axios reports that Fang even engaged in romantic or sexual relationships with two Midwestern mayors. (Axios did not name these officials and made no such allegations about other politicians it tied to Fang.)

What Swalwell is saying: He hasn’t denied the reporting, but he says he thinks it was leaked by someone in the Trump administration to get back at him for being a loud Trump critic. He told Politico that he learned Axios was working on this report just as he was wrapping up his presidential run, implying that people in the Trump administration wanted to try to share dirt on him.

“I’ve been a critic of the president. I’ve spoken out against him. I was on both committees that worked to impeach him,” Swalwell said. “The timing feels like that should be looked at.”

Swalwell was indeed a vociferous critic of Trump, but so are many, many Democrats on Capitol Hill, and that was especially true during the Democratic presidential primaries.

Still, Swalwell maintains he’s being punished for speaking out by unnamed people in the Trump administration.

“If intelligence officials are trying to weaponize someone’s cooperation,” Swalwell told Politico, “they are essentially seeking to do what this person was not able to do, which is to try and discredit someone.”

It rings a little bit like Trump and his allies’ attacks on a nameless “deep state” in the government whenever they’re accused of wrongdoing.

How this is becoming a potential political issue: Well, Republicans are trying to make it one. House Republican leaders want Democrats to kick Swalwell off the Intelligence Committee. This has caught the attention of Trump, who shared attacks on Swalwell on Twitter. In doing so, though, he may have fed Swalwell’s narrative that Trump’s allies wanted to discredit him because he has been such a big critic of the president.

Losing his seat on the committee is not happening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday. “I don’t have any concerns about Mr. Swalwell,” she told reporters.

She accused Republicans of trying to distract from the fact that they have incoming members of their caucus who believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory. She said that’s the bigger threat to members of Congress being influenced by outside forces.