Trump’s ownership of the building received a smattering of attention before and after his 2016 campaign. But the arrangement with the Bank of China — and its impending due date in 2022 — has gone largely unnoticed.
The revelation complicates one of Trump’s emerging campaign attacks against Biden: that the former vice president would be a gift to the Communist country and America’s chief economic rival.
Aside from the historic precedent of a developer-turned president paying back millions to a bank controlled by a foreign government, the 2012 Bank of China deal also stands out because Trump and his campaign have repeatedly highlighted the same bank’s role in a $1.5 billion deal announced in 2013 by partners of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Critics of the Bidens have seized on the fact that the agreement materialized just days after Hunter Biden traveled to China with the then-vice president, who was there on official business.
“Why did the Chinese government’s bank want to do business with Hunter Biden while his dad was Vice President,” Trump’s campaign asked on Twitter earlier this month. The issue was also raised in a campaign ad the day before, one in a stream of criticisms about the China deal raised by campaign spokespeople and Trump since last year.
The Trump campaign has steadily increased its focus on trying to portray Biden as weak on China amid rising voter disapproval of China, the source of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump surrogate Corey Lewandowski dubbed him “Beijing Biden” in an online campaign event Wednesday. And during a White House news briefing Saturday, Trump said China will “own” the U.S. if Biden wins.
But Trump’s recent criticisms of China have been muddied by his own mixed messaging as well as by his numerous financial ties to the country. Those connections extend far beyond the Avenue of the America’s loan: Chinese state-owned companies are constructing two luxury Trump developments in United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. The president and his daughter Ivanka Trump, a White House adviser, have been awarded trademarks by China’s government. And his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has courted Chinese investors in at least one other real estate deal.
“We actually explored all these foreign enterprises and how once he became president he’d be seen differently by foreign leaders who would have leverage over this president because he had investments in their countries and/or financial dealings with business enterprises and financial institutions and investors in their countries,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee. “He is highly conflicted with respect to China.”
Trump has denied he has any conflicts. But he rejected calls to fully separate from his namesake company, which comprises more than 500 businesses and includes properties in nearly two dozen countries, after he was sworn into office. He still owns his business, though he asked his adult sons to run it. His holdings were placed in a trust designed to hold assets for his benefit from which he can draw money at any time without public knowledge.
The building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas is a particular point of pride for Trump, who mentioned it when he announced his candidacy in 2015.
“I beat China all the time,” Trump said during a speech at the time from Trump Tower, adding, “I own a big chunk of the Bank of America building [in San Francisco] and 1290 Avenue of the Americas that I got from China in a war. Very valuable. I love China.”
A New York Times article in 2016, however, reported that Trump had to settle for 30 percent ownership of both buildings. Trump continues to own that share of both properties, which are touted under the real estate portfolio section of the Trump Organization’s website.
Trump is considered a passive investor who doesn’t control the financing or management of 1290 Avenue of the Americas. The main investor is Vornado Realty Trust, which owns 70 percent.
The debt stems from a $950 million refinancing deal in 2012, to which the Bank of China chipped in $211 million. With the loan, Bank of China became the first in the nation to enter the U.S. securitization market, according to a 2013 Wall Street Journal article. Vornado’s federal financial disclosures show it and the other owner of 1290 Avenue of the Americas — Trump — are still indebted from the 2012 deal.
“While Trump is talking about the former vice president’s son’s financial dealings, in Trump’s case, it is the president himself who has a company he still owns and profits from that has financial relationships with the countries that he is supposed to be negotiating with on behalf of the American people,” said Robert Maguire, research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“There are definitely legitimate questions that are raised by Hunter Biden’s actions,” Maguire said. “They are not even in the same ballpark as the conflict of interest questions raised by President Trump’s continued relationship with his own company.”
The White House and Trump Organization, which features the New York City property on its website, declined to comment on the record for this story.
The Trump campaign said there is no comparison between Trump’s debt and Biden’s deals.
“There is an obvious difference between Donald Trump working as a successful businessman as a private citizen and Hunter Biden using his name to cash in with a $1.5 billion investment from a state-controlled Chinese bank while his father was vice president,” said Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman.
George Mesires, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, disputes the account of the Trump campaign and conservative critics. He said the private equity deal linked to Hunter Biden’s business partners, called Bohai Harvest RST, was initially capitalized by a group of investors in China. Some had financial links to the bank. And Mesires said they initially invested $4.2 million —not the $1.5 billion that the firm initially boasted was a goal of the deal in a news release.
During the trip to China on Dec. 4, 2013, with his father, Hunter Biden went along to chaperone his own daughter, who was accompanying her grandfather, then vice president, Mesires said. He said Hunter Biden did not conduct business in China but did meet socially during the trip with the Chinese businessman who would become CEO of Bohai Harvest RST, the registration documents for which were submitted to Chinese authorities a month before the Bidens’ China trip.
Hunter Biden was not listed on the company’s documents because he didn’t put the deal together and did not acquire a direct financial stake until October 2017, when he acquired a 10 percent interest after committing $420,000, Mesires said. Hunter Biden announced he was resigning from BHR last year.
Hunter Biden’s involvement in the deal came despite his lack of experience in doing business in China. Similarly, Hunter Biden had no experience in Ukraine or in natural gas, but scored a lucrative gig for an energy company in that country, in which his dad also had business.
“I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden,” Hunter Biden said in an ABC interview in October in which he reiterated his father’s longstanding denials that Joe Biden had any involvement in his business affairs.
Trump’s criticism of the Ukraine deal led to his impeachment for trying to leverage U.S. aid to Ukraine in return for it opening an investigation into Biden and his son.
“Donald Trump was so desperate not to face the vice president that he got himself impeached,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates, who declined to comment on Trump’s China-focused attacks, but criticized his handling of the coronavirus that emanated in China.
Biden backers have complained that the information about the China trip and Ukraine matter were overhyped by Republican researcher Peter Schweizer in his 2019 book, “Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends.” Democrats point out that Schweizer runs a nonprofit that has been funded by a top Trump donor and they say that “Secret Empires” is a replay of his 2015 “Clinton Cash,” a book that fact checkers took some issue with as it was embraced by Trump in an effort to paint Hillary Clinton as corrupt.
Still, Biden’s Democratic opponents in the early days of the crowded primary shopped opposition research about Hunter Biden’s foreign entanglements. They said it was a liability that needed to be litigated before the general election because Trump was sure to use it to “muddy the waters” and draw an equivalence between the families’ foreign dealings.
Charlie Kirk, a Trump ally and head of the Turning Point USA conservative group, said the Trump “campaign is right to highlight what amounts to a major distinction in the two candidates. The president has been tougher on China than any politician in decades, reversing a wrongheaded strategy of China appeasement that Joe Biden helped lead and prolong, and from which his own son likely benefited.”