The Chinese Have Cracked the Code for Communicating With Trump
Stephen Wynn, who has financial interests in China, seems to be doing Beijing’s bidding.
New revelations about the Chinese government’s attempt to forcibly repatriate a Chinese fugitive show an assertive Beijing benefitting from a U.S. administration at odds with itself. But who is that American casino mogul who has apparently become the Chinese government’s backchannel to the White House? It turns out he’s a businessman beholden to Beijing and willing to press their case in the corridors of power in Washington -- and he has just the ticket.
New revelations about the Chinese government’s attempt to forcibly repatriate a Chinese fugitive show an assertive Beijing benefitting from a U.S. administration at odds with itself. But who is that American casino mogul who has apparently become the Chinese government’s backchannel to the White House? It turns out he’s a businessman beholden to Beijing and willing to press their case in the corridors of power in Washington — and he has just the ticket.
Earlier this year, Guo Wengui, a Chinese real estate mogul who now resides in New York, began making allegations of corruption against high-ranking Chinese officials. His presence in the United States has caused growing diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing, which has accused him of fraud and kidnapping and demanded his extradition back to China.
Then Steve Wynn, an American casino magnate, reportedly hand-delivered a letter to Trump from the Chinese government asking him to ship Guo home. Trump later recalled the letter during an Oval Office briefing on Chinese economic espionage.
“Where’s the letter that Steve brought?” aides in the room at the time reported Trump as saying, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We need to get this criminal out of the country.”
But U.S. national security officials have indicated that Guo’s presence in the United States is valuable. His application for asylum is currently in process. In the end, aides blocked Guo’s removal.
The incident demonstrates that the Chinese government has figured out who Trump listens to and how to mobilize these people to further their agenda inside the White House. In other words, they’ve cracked the Trump code.
So why did Wynn agree to deliver a letter from the authoritarian government hunting Guo to the president — and why did Trump give it so much credence? (A Wynn Resorts spokesman told the Journal that the report was “false.”)
The U.S. billionaire made his fortune in casinos from Las Vegas to Macau, a former Portuguese colony that now belongs to mainland China. Wynn has previously admitted his business interests in China have affected his U.S. political choices. During the 2016 presidential election primaries, Wynn initially supported Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio over Trump, due to Trump’s fiery rhetoric against China.
“I’m in business in China, I have great respect for the government there. And I have 20,000 employees or more there,” said Wynn in a March interview with CBS, explaining his early support for Rubio over Trump. “And I wanted to stay out of the line of fire until a discussion about the People’s Republic of China was more focused.”
By the time of Trump’s inauguration, however, the two tycoons were on better terms. When fashion designer Tom Ford said in November that he would not dress Melania Trump — becoming one of numerous designers to disavow the future first lady — Wynn pulled Ford’s line from the Wynn Las Vegas hotel.
Chinese authorities understand there’s an opportunity to bring that kind of influence directly to the White House. The Trump administration has frequently sidelined the State Department, shutting career officials out of policy decisions and leaving dozens of important diplomatic posts unfilled. That’s left many foreign governments without clear interlocutors, and diplomats have spent the months since Trump’s inauguration seeking out other channels to communicate with the White House.
Chinese officials have steadily gotten more adept at reaching out to the U.S. president by other means. During the Lunar New Year, China’s most important annual holiday, the Chinese embassy in Washington threw a party, complete with children’s activities, and invited Ivanka Trump and her children — her daughter, Arabella, has studied Chinese in school. Ivanka attended with children in tow.
Wynn is close to Trump and a powerful insider in U.S. politics. In January, Wynn was appointed the Republican National Convention’s finance chair, a position that puts him in charge of campaign financing for the 2018 midterm elections.
But, perhaps even more importantly, his business empire is highly vulnerable to Beijing. The Macau gambling industry, which in 2013 brought in seven times the revenue of Las Vegas, is in dire straits amid a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown. As a result, high-rollers avoided Macau, gutting revenues and demonstrating the Chinese Communist Party’s immense power over one of the world’s largest gambling havens.
Wynn Macau, the American magnate’s signature casino there, is vulnerable to Beijing’s political winds. In October 2015, after Wynn Macau’s net revenues had sunk by almost 40 percent, Wynn made a rare impassioned criticism of local policies.
“In my 45 years of experience, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Wynn said in company conference call, referring to a new regulation. “Here we are spending billions of dollars … and then arbitrarily somebody says, ‘Well, you should only have this many tables.’ No jurisdiction ever has imposed that kind of logic on us.”
Wynn’s bad period didn’t last too long. In April 2017, three months after Wynn assumed the RNC position, he declared that his China casino business was experiencing a “resurgence,” with quarterly profits exceeding expectations.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr
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