After weeks of pushing debunked conspiracies about wrongdoing by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine, President Donald Trump publicly urged China Thursday to investigate unfounded allegations that the younger Biden received a "payoff."
The invitation to the Chinese government, denounced by Democrats and excoriated by two Republican senators, mirrored the private behavior on which the House is partially basing their formal impeachment inquiry — using the office of the presidency to press a foreign leader to investigate a political rival. Trump has defended his actions in recent days by saying he has a right, even a duty, to root out "corruption" around the world.
But much like the president's Ukraine conspiracy theories, the serious accusations that Trump and his allies, including personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, have leveled against the Bidens with regard to China are unsupported. All the details of Hunter Biden's business dealings aren't known, since he has always been a private citizen, but there’s no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of either Biden. Trump and his allies has yet to offer evidence of the claims, while the former vice president has said the president is the one who is corrupt.
"This is not about me, it's not about my son. There's not a shred of evidence of anything that was wrong," Joe Biden told reporters Friday after a campaign stop in Los Angeles.
Trump's claims, and the facts
“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 Thursday outside the White House.
Building on the baseless claims that the former vice president — now a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020 — corruptly used the power of his office to boost his son's business interests in Ukraine, Trump began making similar unfounded allegations related to China.
Hunter Biden was “getting billions of dollars. You know what they call that? They call that a payoff,” Trump said, reiterating a claim that Biden’s son somehow benefited from a 2013 trip to China with his father.
At another point last week, Trump said: “Biden’s son walks out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund, and the biggest funds in the world can’t get money out of China, and he’s there for one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two, I think that’s a horrible thing. I think it’s a horrible thing."
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This allegation has also been made by conservative author Peter Schweizer, who was behind the debunked claims that foreign governments paid off the Clintons through their eponymous foundation.
The New Yorker traced the details of Hunter Biden’s business dealings in a profile this summer, from launching his own consulting firm in 2008 — which was hired by universities and an energy company, according to Open Secrets — to talks in 2012 with an Chinese private equity investor, Jonathan Li, about launching a fund backed by Chinese capital.
That venture, BHR Partners, was formed a year later, in 2013; it earned big investments from state-controlled Chinese financial institutions. The $1.5 billion number appears to refer to a fundraising goal the company set in 2014.
But throughout this period, Hunter Biden worked as an unpaid board member, a spokesman for the younger Biden previously told NBC News. After his father left office, Hunter bought a 10 percent share in the company in 2017, for $420,000.
Much of the criticism has centered around Hunter's presence on an official trip the vice president took to China — where Trump claims Hunter got a "payoff."
In December 2013, then-Vice President Biden went to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping, bringing along one of his grandchildren — this time, Hunter’s daughter Finnegan — as he often did on international trips. Hunter Biden joined them on the trip, flying on Air Force Two.
As NBC News has previously reported, Hunter and daughter Finnegan joined the vice president for ice cream, gift shopping and a traditional tea ceremony during the trip. Several former White House officials who traveled with Biden on the trip told NBC News earlier this week that they didn’t know at the time that Hunter Biden had any business interests in China and were unaware of his private schedule while in Beijing. Hunter joined the vice president for some public events, following a private itinerary, presumably with his daughter, at other times during the trip.
During the weeklong trip, Hunter met with Li, his BHR partner, in what they have both described as a social visit. The New Yorker reported he also arranged for his father to meet and shake hands with Li in the lobby of a hotel.
“How do I go to Beijing, halfway around the world, and not see them for a cup of coffee?” Hunter told the magazine earlier this year.
A Chinese business license was issued by Shanghai authorities days after the trip, officially creating the fund in late 2013. The timing has raised eyebrows, though Hunter Biden's spokesman, George Mesires, told NBC News previously that Hunter Biden wasn’t initially an “owner” of the company and has never gotten paid for serving on the board.
Biden and his son have both said they did not discuss Hunter’s overseas business dealings while he was vice president.
“I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings,” Biden said last month. On Friday, he said he stood by that statement.
"There's been no indication of any conflict of interest. In Ukraine or anywhere else, period. I'm not going to respond to that. Focus on this man, what he's doing, that no president has ever done. No president," Biden told reporters Friday in Los Angeles.
"The American people know me, and they know him. They know, even the people who support him know, this man lacks character. Even people who support him know he lies constantly," the former vice president added.
Trump's allegations and persistent attacks on the Bidens come as his own family members have been criticized for doing business with China while he is president.
His daughter, who serves in the White House as an adviser to the president, was awarded a large batch of trademarks in October 2018 amid trade war talks between her father and the country. In 2017, she was awarded new Chinese trademarks the same day she dined with the Chinese president.
A real estate company owned by the family of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to sell a troubled Manhattan real estate investment to a Chinese firm. Kushner’s sister also touted her ties to the White House when pitching Chinese investors in Beijing to invest in New Jersey.
The president, too, has been criticized for the many ways he is profiting from the presidency.