How a Chinese intelligence tycoon became Trump’s Republican darling
Eventually, Guo landed in New York, where he applied for the penthouse at Sherry-Netherland. It was becoming increasingly clear that he might never return to China. He needed to master new ground, so he started with a game he knew: intelligence. Around the world, the FBI maintains thousands of formal and informal sources, ranging from government bureaucrats to shoe shiners monitoring foot traffic on a street corner. Some have civic motivations, like a grandmother on a porch quietly noting the make and model of a drug dealer’s car. But in most cases, relationships are transactional. The source wants money or protection from lawsuits; the manager, as one former agent told me, “tries to get as much use out of this person” as possible.
In New York, Guo spoke to the FBI about the financial and private lives of Chinese leaders, according to two sources familiar with the arrangement. “He knew who had girlfriends, who had boyfriends,” recalls a former Bureau official. More importantly, Guo knew which Party families profited from which companies: “Just going to Miles and asking him these questions will save you three or four months of analytical work. In one instance, the official said, Guo provided information about Xi Jinping’s daughter while she was attending college in the United States.
The CIA was less impressed; analysts concluded that Guo could not be trusted to keep secrets. But the FBI stayed in touch. “If you ask ten different FBI and CIA people about Miles, you’ll get seven different answers,” the former Bureau official said. “It’s not always perfect. But no source is. The official added: “He knows he needs us to protect him. So he will constantly give just enough. Guo also sought other forms of protection, trying to hire people with ties to the local power structure. In New York, he invited Jeh Johnson, who headed the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, to his apartment in Sherry-Netherland. Johnson had left the government and was working as a lawyer at a white shoe firm, and Guo wanted to hire him. During their meeting, Johnson politely responded by telling Guo, “I feel like you’re someone I want to help.” After doing more research on Guo, however, Johnson declined to take him on.
In China, Guo had demonstrated an unwavering instinct to align himself with politicians who could help him. In the United States, he seemed to quickly determine who his most likely benefactors were. Since Xi Jinping became Party Secretary in 2012, he has reasserted Party control, reversed reforms and expanded China’s pursuit of power abroad. In Washington, a rare consensus has developed among Republicans and Democrats that China’s commitment to cooperation and openness has failed. But the two sides are at odds over what to do about it. Democrats tend to oppose Xi’s government on a range of issues – China’s mass internment of Muslims, its pressure on Taiwan, its military activities in the South China Sea – but they still seek cooperation on the climate change, health and the proliferation of weapons. Republicans have made aggression against China a measure of conservative credibility and come close to declaring the Communist Party illegitimate.
In January 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Guo activated his Twitter account and sat down for the first of a series of interviews with overseas Chinese media. He accused some of China’s top leaders of corruption. It focused on Wang Qishan, the Party’s anti-corruption chief, saying his relatives were hidden stakeholders in HNA, the profitable parent company of Hainan Airlines, and owned US real estate worth up to ten million dollars. Guo posted personal information online, including passports and flight records. (HNA denied the allegations and sued Guo for defamation.)
He began broadcasting live from Lady May’s penthouse and deck, offering other salacious, often unproven claims. His social media accounts have attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, mostly Chinese expats, many of whom have avidly supported Trump over his criticism of China. Guo said it was the start of a “denunciation movement” and boasted of his own courage: “Guo Wengui is from the grassroots, he was born a farmer and is not afraid of death. »
In China, Guo’s revelations had the effect of a bomb. They arrived at the approach of an important communist conclave, the 19th Party Congress, which would determine the top leadership for the next five years. The charges were widely seen as orchestrated sabotage by Xi’s enemies, or possibly American interference, to interfere with the coronation.
The Party retaliated quickly; he asked Interpol, the global police organization, to issue a “red notice” requesting Guo’s extradition. A video confession of his former boss, spymaster Ma Jian, has been uploaded to YouTube. Looking scruffy and perusing, Ma said he took some sixty million yuan in bribes from Guo and repeatedly stepped in to help his businesses. (Guo denied bribing Ma.)
Online, Chinese censors sought to block all traces of Guo’s accusations, but their efforts were clearly not rigorous enough: ordinary Internet users were bypassing the firewall in large numbers. Xiao Qiang, a researcher at UC Berkeley, studied web search trends in mainland China and found a pattern of sharp increases on days when Guo was streaming. Xiao called it the “Guo Wengui Effect”.
The actual effect on Chinese policy was less clear. Although Wang, the target of the attacks, remained in power, one of his top aides was later imprisoned. HNA went bankrupt and senior executives were arrested by the police. In 2018, the company’s co-chairman fell off a wall while posing for a photo in France. Police ruled out foul play, but Guo, in his new role as a media personality, was becoming an avid conspirator. He called a press conference in New York and suggested the executive was killed because he “knew too much”.
One day in May 2017, a team of four Chinese security service officers, former allies of Guo, showed up at Sherry-Netherland. The lobby is an ornate place, with hand-woven French rugs, marble mosaics, and a ceiling painted with cherubs inspired by Vatican frescoes. The officers did not delay; they headed to the penthouse, where Guo was waiting for them.
Guo and the security guards talked for hours, arranged on the gilded furniture in his solarium. The government was making a bold effort to get it back. He later released excerpts from a recording, in which they could be heard discussing a deal: Go back to China, and they would leave his family alone and unfreeze his assets. The officers, Guo later said, had brought his wife and daughter from Beijing; allowing his family to leave was a gesture of goodwill. Guo didn’t trust them. “Unless I get Secretary Xi’s approval, I will not return,” he said.
The visit caught the attention of Guo’s new contacts at the FBI. Later that day, the Chinese team was at Penn Station en route to Washington when Bureau agents arrested them. The FBI ordered Chinese officers to leave the country and stay away from Guo. Two days later, however, they returned to his apartment and a debate developed within the US government over whether the provocation was significant enough for the FBI to arrest the officers. A national security official who participated in the talks recalled, “My view was that we should impose a sanction on them.”
As the Chinese team headed for JFK airport for an afternoon flight to Beijing, the Bureau dispatched agents to intercept them. The US Attorney’s office in Brooklyn has prepared charges of visa fraud and extortion. But the State Department has expressed concern that Chinese officers could enjoy diplomatic immunity, and arresting them could expose Americans in China to retaliation. A compromise was reached, under which the Bureau could make a show of limited force. Just before the flight took off, officers confiscated the Chinese delegation’s phones. (In retaliation, according to the national security official, the Chinese later confiscated a notebook from a US diplomat as she boarded a plane out of the country.)
Having failed to convince Guo to return home, Chinese authorities attempted to force him to leave the United States. They got in touch with Steve Wynn, who was then the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. Wynn, a hotelier, was facing recent restrictions on his casino business in Macau. In June 2017, according to documents filed in Federal Court, he spoke by phone with Sun Lijun, the vice minister of public security, who asked for help in getting Guo back to China. Wynn agreed to raise the issue with President Trump.
At a dinner in Washington in late June, Wynn conveyed the request and gave Trump’s secretary a package containing the Interpol notice, news articles and copies of Guo’s passport. Afterwards, he heard from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist and Vice Chairman of Finance for the Republican National Committee, who was in contact with Sun Lijun. Broidy texted that Sun was “extremely delighted and said President Xi Jinping appreciates [the] assistance.” Wynn wrote to another person, also involved in communications, “I remain grateful for the privilege of being part of the Macau and PRC business community.”