The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China, a flourishing industry claims to sell access to President Trump

President Trump arrives at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on June 27, 2018, where he attended a fundraiser.
President Trump arrives at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on June 27, 2018, where he attended a fundraiser. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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One invitation promised a breakfast reception with the U.S. president. Another offered one-on-one photos with him. And a third claimed to “allow you to communicate with President Trump face to face and brief him on your business plans and demands.”

The offers, promoted online to wealthy entrepreneurs in China in the form of official-looking invitations, are part of a sprawling cottage industry claiming to provide intimate access to Trump, sometimes at official Republican fundraisers and often for a hefty fee.

Such solicitations, posted on Chinese social media and messaging apps, have cropped up in isolated instances since Trump took office. The Washington Post has reviewed eight that promise opportunities to interact with the president at U.S.-based events, suggesting that the practice is broader than previously known.

The Post was not able to determine the authenticity of the invitations and whether anyone gained access to Trump through them. Officials with the Republican National Committee said that neither they nor the Trump campaign has had anything to do with the solicitations.

But seven of the invitations referenced events that took place, including GOP fundraisers. If Chinese nationals paid to attend fundraisers, it would be illegal under U.S. law because foreigners are not allowed to donate to American candidates or political committees.

Invitations offer wealthy Chinese access to President Trump at fundraiser

Six of the invitations were provided to The Post by the Campaign Legal Center,. This week, the nonprofit watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the people involved with the invitations are trying to skirt federal laws banning foreign contributions to U.S. campaigns.

The perks advertised in the invitations bear similarities to those offered by Li “Cindy” Yang, a Trump bundler from Florida whose company purported to offer foreign visitors access to the president and other top Republican officials. Yang has denied any wrongdoing.

Republican National Committee officials said they do not accept donations from foreigners.

“We only accept donations in accordance with the law,” said Blair Ellis, an RNC spokeswoman. “If we do see any evidence of illegal contributions, we report it to the proper authorities. If we are notified by the proper authorities that a donation was illegal, we would return the money.”

The RNC has taken such steps in the past. Last year, it reported to federal authorities invitations circulated by three Chinese companies claiming to be selling tickets to a May 2018 fundraiser in Dallas.

Attention has centered recently on international efforts to influence U.S. elections, including through “straw donor” schemes in which illegal contributions are made under the name of someone who is allowed to give.

For example, the Justice Department recently indicted a fugitive Malaysian financier and a U.S. rapper on charges of funneling $1 million to a super PAC supporting President Barack Obama and his reelection campaign in 2012. Authorities say the pair used about 20 donors who were allegedly reimbursed for their donations in violation of the law.

“This is a growing migraine for campaign finance law, trying to guard against foreign influence,” said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Based on these invitations floating around, the RNC is essentially on notice that due diligence is more complicated than it used to be.”

The only way a foreign visitor can attend a fundraiser is as a guest of a donor who is an American citizen or permanent resident; campaign finance laws bar foreign visitors from reimbursing the donor.

Political committees are required to make their “best efforts” to vet donations. If it is discovered that foreigners made illegal contributions, committees must return the money. But there is a limit to how much committees can do to root out bad actors without infringing on rights of legal donors, experts say.

One of the invitations uncovered by the Campaign Legal Center was issued by HGGT Limited, a financial services company registered in Hong Kong that operates in mainland China. The invitation, to what it says is an upcoming event at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Florida, said its $70,000 package includes a four-star hotel stay and photos with the president. The invitation carries the logo of a real fundraising committee.

But Republican National Committee officials said that no such event is planned, and that they did not authorize the company to use the logo for Trump Victory, the committee that raises money jointly for the RNC and Trump 2020.

Reached by The Post, an HGGT employee said the company’s owner routinely receives what she described as authentic invitations to exclusive Trump events in the United States and sells some or all of his allotted seats to Chinese nationals.

Communicating via HGGT’s account on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, the woman gave her name as Cici and said she was a personal assistant to the chief executive and founder, Ma Jin.

The assistant declined to provide her last name or make Ma available for an interview. But a human resources official, contacted at the company by phone, said that anyone reached through the official WeChat account is a confirmed employee of the company.

Cici declined to describe Ma’s citizenship or residency status.

Ma’s name did not turn up in federal databases of donors who have given more than $200 to political committees.

Asked whether the company was aware that foreigners are not allowed to make campaign contributions, Cici replied, “Thank you, we are fully aware of that.” She then cut off the conversation and blocked the reporter from contacting her.

Another invitation circulated on a Chinese blog promoted a March 2018 visit to Mar-a-Lago for Chinese entrepreneurs and business leaders. It promised a dinner banquet and a photo with Trump. No cost was listed. The fundraiser cited was legitimate.

“AmeriChina cordially invites Chinese business leaders . . . to have a face-to-face exchange with President Trump and brief the president on your investment plans and needs,” the invitation said.

But Jingzhu “Margaret” Yang, founder of AmeriChina, a communications and event planning business based in Beijing and New York, said in an interview that her company did not promote that event. Although her company has promoted U.S.-based Trump events in the past, she said this particular invitation appears to have been altered using her company’s logo.

She said she does not get paid to promote Trump events. She has found that such events are particularly popular with entrepreneurs in China who idolize Trump, she said.

Another invitation, from a company run by a Beijing-based socialite, promoted a three-day trip to a GOP fundraiser in Milwaukee in June 2018 that included an “exclusive opportunity” to get an autographed photo with the president. No cost was listed. The fundraiser advertised did occur.

“President Trump will personally grace the event,” read the invitation, which said guests would get to pitch their business plans directly to Trump.

The owner of Buds, the company advertising the trip, did not respond to requests for comment.

Li reported from Beijing. Alice Crites, Felicia Sonmez and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.