Exclusive: Pompeo, DeVos and other Trump cabinet members have deep financial ties to China

Republicans are now demonizing China — but Trump cabinet members have gotten rich off the Chinese government

Published May 14, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Andrew Harnik/Salon)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Andrew Harnik/Salon)

Research obtained by Salon reveals that several members of President Trump's cabinet have cultivated considerable business and financial relationships with the Chinese government over the years. These officials include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the nation's leading foreign policy official, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family company got a unique clearance from Beijing to reopen a factory in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

The document Salon received compiles years of open-source information and paints a picture of an administration whose self-interests are often at odds with its rhetoric. The contrast is rendered sharper in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, whose origins in Wuhan, China, have stoked anti-Chinese conspiracy theories at the highest levels of government, while spurring the Trump campaign to imply nefarious links between presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the Chinese government.

"Donald Trump can pretend to act tough when the cameras are on, but for decades, he and his cabinet personally profited and contributed to China's global rise — shipping American jobs overseas and taking Chinese Communist Party state-sanctioned cash," said Kyle Morse, spokesperson for American Bridge, the pro-Democratic organization that compiled the research.

"When the coronavirus outbreak began, it should come as no surprise that Trump's knee-jerk reaction was to trust and then praise China instead of preparing for the pandemic," Morse said. "Trump and his cabinet's financial dealings prove we cannot trust them to stand up to China when it matters most." 

Administration officials, congressional Republicans, right-wing media personalities and Trump himself have increasingly intensified their anti-China rhetoric in an attempt to distract from the administration's failings to respond adequately to the coronavirus outbreak. Efforts range from officially sanctioned national security investigations to evidence-free conspiracy theories alleging that the coronavirus was manufactured as a Chinese bioweapon to the president's intermittent attempts to call the infection "China virus."

Trump backers, sensing an opportunity, have dropped at least $10 million into ads smearing the likely Democratic nominee as "Beijing Biden," an effort that appears geared to pick up where the Burisma scandal dropped off following Trump's impeachment.

Those efforts, however, are often muddled by Trump's off-script outbursts of admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping's response to the pandemic. The American Bridge research does not touch on the Trump family's own financial connections to China which are manifold.

(Politico was recently forced to issue extensive corrections to an article that incorrectly reported that Trump owed business-related debts to the Bank of China.)

The American Bridge document inverts the administration's story, laying out in detail a history of personal business interests of Pompeo, DeVos, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Here are some key points.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

DeVos' profile offers perhaps the most jarring contrast between what the administration says and does.

The secretary's husband, Dick DeVos, is heir to the "multi-level marketing" company Amway, and their family is worth an estimated $2 billion, according to a Forbes analysis. Dick DeVos ran Amway's parent company in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it downsized its U.S. workforce and invested $200 million in factories and distribution networks in China.

By 2010, China was Amway's largest market, yielding $3 billion in revenue, according to Bloomberg. All the products made in China were sold in the country, not in the United States or elsewhere. After enduring regulatory backlash in the U.S. for its pyramid-scheme structure, Amway began working closely with the Chinese government to retain access to the market.

This February, the Chinese government gave Amway special permission to reopen its Guangzhou manufacturing plant, while keeping most facilities shuttered to stunt the spread of the virus.

According to Amway CEO Milland Pant, the government made that decision because it believed that "products aimed at strengthening the immune system, including Amway's line of Nutrilite vitamins and supplements, were part of the solution to combating the spread of coronavirus."

However, the widespread factory shutdowns in China encumbered Amway's ability to source and package Nutrilite products. The company chose to ramp up production at its headquarters in Michigan, and at another factory in California, in order to satisfy the Chinese market.

"We are almost scrambling to different manufacturing locations and global supplies to meet that demand," Pant said.

Amway sales fell 5 percent in 2019, thanks in large part to the Chinese government's heightened scrutiny over the types of products the company markets.

The day the factory reopening was announced, Trump, while speaking to reporters in India, expressed his admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping's response to the outbreak.

Xi "is working very hard. He is very capable. The country is very capable. And it snuck up on him, but I think he's going to do well," the president said.

Nine weeks later, in a May 4 letter addressed to DeVos, seven Republican lawmakers called out the Chinese government's "cover-up of the early outbreak," asking the secretary to investigate U.S. universities that have been funding research connected with laboratories in China.

"The interests of the two nations appear to have diverged," they wrote.

"The Chinese Communist Party's cover-up of the early outbreak of the coronavirus immeasurably worsened this disease's impact on the United States and the world. We owe it to the American people to hold China accountable and to prevent them from doing further harm to our country," the GOP lawmakers said.

DeVos has not yet publicly responded to the letter.

Erik Prince, DeVos' brother, who ran the military-contracting company Blackwater and connected Trump surrogates with Russian government operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign, was chairman of Frontier Services Group (FSG) in 2014. Frontier is an oil and mining logistics company based in Hong Kong and partially owned by the Chinese government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Pompeo echoed the rhetoric in the DeVos letter during an ABC interview earlier this month, when he claimed there is "enormous evidence" to show that the novel coronavirus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

"The best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point," Pompeo said.

Confronted with a report issued by the director of national intelligence that disagreed with that assessment, Pompeo said he has "no reason to doubt that that is accurate at this point."

Pompeo was formerly the head of Sentry International, a company that imported oil-rig parts made by Chinese companies, at least three of which were subsidies of the Chinese government.

During his 2010 congressional campaign in Kansas against Democrat Raj Goyle — whom Pompeo's campaign called an "evil turban topper" — Pompeo said his Chinese sourcing had created American jobs by importing oilfield equipment from China and installing and servicing it in the U.S.

Pompeo disappeared from his company's masthead in 2009, and did not list his connection with the Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec on his Senate questionnaire seven years later when he was nominated by Trump as CIA director.

In an internal memo addressed to Pompeo and obtained by ProPublica, State Department officials cautioned Pompeo against cutting WHO funding, saying such a move would "cede ground" to China.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue

Perdue's company, Perdue Partners, promoted his international contacts, including his work as Georgia governor opening offices for the state in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Perdue founded the trucking company Perdue Partners with his cousin David, acquiring goods from the bustling Port of Savannah when David sat on the port's board of directors. Perdue Partners also purchased the cargo company Benton Global, which imported for Chinese companies where Sonny Perdue had contacts.

"We focus on exporting American products to emerging markets around the world. We bought a trucking company last year," Perdue told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2014. Records show, however, that Benton imported goods into Georgia, mainly from Chinese and Indian companies.

The company went out of business in 2015.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao

Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been described as the administration's "bridge to China," and her business relationships to the country have been the subject of congressional investigation.

"In China, the Chaos are no ordinary family. They run an American shipping company with deep ties to the economic and political elite in China, where most of the company's business is centered," said a 2019 New York Times report.

According to that Times article, Chao's family company, Foremost, has received "hundreds of millions of dollars in loan commitments from a bank run by the Chinese government, whose policies have been labeled by the Trump administration as threats to American security."

In 2019, then-House Oversight Committee chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wrote to Chao: "Several reports indicate that you have used your official position to benefit Foremost Group, a shipping company owned by your father and sisters that is headquartered in New York and operates a fleet that transports materials to and from China.

"These reports suggest that you used your official position to elevate Foremost Group's influence and status with the Chinese government, which has extended hundreds of millions of dollars in low-interest loans to the company for the purchase of foreign-flagged ships."

Morse, the American Bridge spokesperson, concluded: "Donald Trump can pretend to act tough when the cameras are on, but for decades, he and his cabinet personally profited and contributed to China's global rise — shipping American jobs overseas and taking Chinese Communist Party state-sanctioned cash." 

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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