WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, already facing impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, publicly called on China on Thursday to examine former Vice President Joe Biden as well, an extraordinary request to a foreign power for help that could benefit him in next year’s election.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House to travel to Florida. His request came just moments after he discussed upcoming trade talks with China and said that “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”
The president’s call for Chinese intervention means that Trump and his attorney general have solicited assistance in discrediting the president’s political opponents from Ukraine, Australia, Italy and, according to one report, Britain. In speaking so publicly Thursday, a defiant Trump pushed back against critics who have called such requests an abuse of power, essentially arguing that there was nothing wrong with seeking foreign help.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has made no effort to hide actions or statements that critics called outrageous violations of norms and standards — but because he does them in public, they seem to stir less blowback than if they had been done behind closed doors. Among other things, he repeatedly called on his own Justice Department to investigate his Democratic foes and eventually fired his first attorney general for not protecting him from the Russia investigation.
The comments on China came as the first witness appeared on Capitol Hill to be interviewed by House investigators as part of the impeachment inquiry into the president’s request for investigations into Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and other Democrats during a July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine at the same time Trump was withholding $391 million in U.S. aid.
Kurt D. Volker, who resigned last week as the Trump administration’s special envoy to Ukraine, was being interviewed behind closed doors by House staff members about his interactions with the Ukrainians and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney who has been vigorously lobbying for Ukrainian investigations into Democrats.
After Trump’s comments on China on Thursday, Biden’s campaign fired back, asserting in a statement that the president was “desperately clutching for conspiracy theories that have been debunked and dismissed by independent, credible news organizations.”
“What Donald Trump just said on the South Lawn of the White House was this election’s equivalent of his infamous ‘Russia, if you’re listening’ moment from 2016 — a grotesque choice of lies over truth and self over the country,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said in the statement.
Bedingfield was referring to a news conference during the 2016 presidential campaign when Trump on camera called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email servers. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. The investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller later determined that Russian hackers tried to do just that hours after Trump’s comments, making their first effort to break into servers used by Clinton’s personal office.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee chairman who is leading the impeachment inquiry, said the president’s latest comments were further evidence of his betrayal of his duties.
“The president of the United States encouraging a foreign nation to interfere and help his campaign by investigating a rival is a fundamental breach of the president’s oath of office,” he told reporters. “It endangers our elections. It endangers our national security. It ought to be condemned by every member of this body, Democrats and Republicans alike.”
Trump has defended his conversation with Zelenskiy as “perfect” even after a reconstructed transcript of the call released by the White House showed him imploring the newly inaugurated Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor” by investigating the Bidens and other Democrats shortly after Zelenskiy discussed his need for more U.S. aid to counter Russian aggression.
Undaunted by the criticism, Trump doubled down on that request Thursday. “I would say that President Zelenskiy, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens,” Trump told reporters. “Because nobody has any doubt that they weren’t crooked.”
Even as he seeks investigations of Democrats by Ukraine and China, the president and Attorney General William Barr have also solicited help from Australia, Italy and perhaps Britain to turn up information undermining the origin of Mueller’s investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In calling for China to investigate the Bidens, Trump referred to a business deal Hunter Biden was in that involved a fund drawing from investment from the Chinese government-owned Bank of China.
The fund was announced in late 2013 — days after Hunter Biden and one of his daughters flew to China from Japan aboard Air Force Two with the vice president, who was in the midst of a diplomatic mission to calm rising tensions in the region, warning Chinese leaders not to use fighter jets to enforce an air defense zone created by Beijing over contested waters. Hunter Biden and his daughter participated in a few public events there with Biden.
Conservative author Peter Schweizer claimed that Hunter Biden used the trip to secure a deal with the Bank of China. That allegation has been echoed by Trump’s allies and by the president himself Thursday.
But a lawyer for Hunter Biden has said that he did not conduct any business related to the China investment fund on that trip, and that he was never an equity owner in the fund while his father was vice president. Hunter Biden later acquired a 10% interest in the entity that oversees the fund, but to date has not received any money from the arrangement, according to the lawyer.
Trump on Thursday said he had not personally asked President Xi Jinping for assistance. “But it’s certainly something we can start thinking about because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny.”
No authorities in United States, Ukraine or China have accused either Biden or his son of any legal wrongdoing and Trump did not explain what laws he believed might have been violated. But he did vaguely suggest without offering any evidence that Biden had been soft on China in terms of policy because of his son’s business interests.
“That’s probably why China had such a sweetheart deal that for so many years they’ve been ripping off our country,” Trump said.
Trump’s suggestion that China investigate the Bidens came as a delegation of senior Chinese officials is set to come to Washington next week for another round of trade negotiations. The two countries, which have been locked in a trade war, are hoping to make progress toward a deal after a breakdown in the talks in May, leading to an escalation of tariffs on each other’s goods.
Trump publicly continues to express ambivalence about the need for a deal while his advisers have been contemplating additional measures, such as banning Chinese companies from American stock exchanges, to inflict economic pain on China. The United States is scheduled to raise tariff rates on more Chinese imports on Oct. 15.
In recent weeks Trump has been raising the issue of Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China along with his allegations that his business in Ukraine represented conflicts of interest for his father, charges amplified by Trump’s Republican allies.
In August, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking him whether the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States was improperly influenced by Biden in 2015 when it approved the acquisition of an American automotive technology company, Henniges Automotive, by a Chinese company and an investment firm linked to Hunter Biden. The Treasury Department has said that it was reviewing the case.
Biden is not the only candidate in the race with a child who has done business in China. Trump’s elder daughter, Ivanka, a senior adviser on his White House staff, has received trademarks from China even after she closed her brand in 2018 because of worsening sales and questions of conflicts of interest.
As a result, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a government watchdog group in Washington that has been sharply critical of Trump, has said that there will continue to be questions about whether the president is making certain foreign policy decisions to benefit his family.