Bob Dole’s lobbying Donald Trump on Taiwan went far beyond a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president.
Dole, the only past Republican presidential nominee to endorse Trump before the election, briefed the campaign’s policy director, set up meetings between campaign staff and Taiwanese emissaries, arranged for Taiwan’s delegation to attend the Republican National Convention, and helped tilt the party platform further in the island’s favor, the disclosure released to POLITICO shows. He even arranged for members of Taiwan’s ruling party to take a White House tour, according to the filing.
Taiwan paid the 93-year-old Dole and his law firm, Alston & Bird, $140,000 between May and October, according to the new disclosure. His spokeswoman declined to comment.
The revelation of Dole’s extensive influence on Trump’s team follows reports that the president-elect has been declining the advice of State Department experts before talking with world leaders. It also contrasts with the transition’s ban on lobbyists and Trump’s campaign pledge to forbid his officials from lobbying for foreign governments and outlaw foreign lobbyists’ donating to American candidates.
“It does seem very strange that Trump is ignoring the State Department while apparently allowing Bob Dole, a lobbyist for Taiwan, to make arrangements for him in what appears to be a change in U.S. policy dealing with Taiwan,” said Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of watchdog group Democracy 21. “Dole’s interests here certainly involved Taiwan’s interests more than it did American interests, and the fact that he was the intermediary raises a serious issue about just how President-elect Trump is going to make U.S. foreign policy.”
Dole’s work is part of Taiwan’s decades-long investment in grooming conservatives to bolster its U.S. relations at China’s expense, dispatching lobbyists to ply Capitol Hill, feting congressional staff with trips to Taipei, throwing parties at a vast D.C. estate, and funneling money to China hawks at right-leaning think tanks.
“They’ve spread it around pretty widely,” said Doug Paal, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was the unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan from 2002 to 2006.
Earlier this year, Dole set up a meeting between Taiwan’s representative to the U.S., Stanley Kao, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a key Trump adviser and later his choice for attorney general. He also convened a meeting between Taiwanese diplomats and the Trump transition team. The disclosure didn’t specify exactly when the meetings occurred.
The filing also reveals Dole’s hand in making the Republican platform the most pro-Taiwan it has ever been. The 2016 edition added language affirming the “Six Assurances” that President Ronald Reagan made to Taiwan’s security in 1982.
The U.S. recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China from the 1949 Communist takeover until President Richard Nixon’s first steps to normalize relations with the mainland in 1972. Since then, deepening economic ties between the U.S. and mainland China have stoked fears in Taiwan that the U.S. might waver in its commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
Dole’s role in the phone call was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. “It’s fair to say that we may have had some influence,” he told the Journal.
Not all of Taiwan’s lobbyists were in on the plan, a person familiar with the matter told POLITICO. It even left out Taiwan’s pseudo-embassy, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, whose officials found out about it from media reports.
“This is sudden news for us as well,” said Thalia Lin, executive officer of TECRO’s press division. “The whole office has no idea what’s going on.”
The U.S. emissary from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Michael Fonte, said he had only a few hours’ heads-up.
“Honestly, I have not had any marching orders what to do pro or con,” Fonte told POLITICO. “Nobody in Taipei has said, ‘You’ve got to do XYZ.’”
Taiwan spends more than $170,000 a month ($2 million a year) on a fleet of outside lobbyists led by former lawmakers. In addition to Alston & Bird, Taiwan pays the firms of former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, former Republican Senator Don Nickles, former Florida Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt. The law and lobbying firm Crowell & Moring is also on retainer.
Trump’s accepting the phone call shattered decades of diplomatic protocol eschewing official relations with Taiwan, leading China to lodge a formal complaint with the White House.
Taiwan’s ties to the Republican National Committee run especially deep. Reince Priebus, Trump’s choice for White House chief of staff, met with Taiwan’s previous president on a 2011 visit in his role as RNC chairman.
The chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, Steve Yates, is a longtime advocate of strengthening the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan and also used to lobby for the country, disclosures show. He told the Idaho Statesman he wasn’t involved in Trump’s phone call and didn’t return a request for comment while he is traveling — in Taiwan, according to his assistant.
Trump’s transition is also stocked with staffers from the Heritage Foundation, which has received funding from Taiwanese companies. They include Steven Groves, who is on the team responsible for the handoff at the State Department, and Ed Feulner, the conservative think tank’s former president and an adviser to the Trump transition, who met with the Taiwanese president in Taipei in October.
The Heritage Foundation has received money for 30 years from three Taiwanese companies, according to Walter Lohman, who leads the organization’s Asia Studies Center. Lohman, who was also traveling, said he couldn’t recall the companies’ names but that they’re displayed on plaques in his office. Still, he said they don’t directly fund or influence the foundation’s research.
“We’re glad to have that funding, of course, but we would be still be committed to this relationship to Taiwan if these companies gave us no funding starting tomorrow,” he said. “There’s nothing nefarious about it.”
In late October, TECRO’s deputy representative spoke at a Heritage Foundation discussion on Taiwan’s foreign policy.
“We work together all the time, but we don’t often have representatives come here and speak from the stage,” Lohman said at the event.
Taiwan also provides funding to the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic & International Studies, which are both home to prominent pro-Taiwan voices, according to the groups’ disclosures.
“I think Taiwan deserves this kind of courtesy,” Mike Green, a former National Security Council staffer now at CSIS, said of Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president. “It’s not a policy, it’s a gesture.”
A CSIS spokesman said most of Taiwan’s money pays for executive training for its own senior officials, and Green doesn’t get any direct funding from Taiwan.
Trump’s phone call was “a good first step toward rebalancing a trilateral China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship” and “higher-level engagement with Taiwan serves U.S. national interests and values,” Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official now at AEI, co-wrote in the National Interest yesterday. The right-leaning think tank’s 2009 donor list, which was mistakenly made public, showed a $550,000 contribution, its fourth-largest, from TECRO.
An AEI spokesman said the think tank no longer accepts foreign donations.
Think tanks also have become more careful, in response to criticism, about insulating donors from researchers. But it’s still widespread for lobbyists, foreign governments and other causes to seek out and support people who share their viewpoints.
“The Taiwan lobby has been much more identified with the far right,” said Robert Torricelli, the former New Jersey senator who used to lobby for TECRO.
A new think tank opened two months ago, the first dedicated solely to Taiwan. It is known as the Global Taiwan Institute. The organization is privately funded and not affiliated with the Taiwanese government, according to its director, Russell Hsiao. Its advisory board includes prominent researchers such as Gordon Chang, William Stanton and John Tkacik, who have all supported Trump’s phone call. Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) attended the group’s launch party.
Taiwan was once considered one of Washington’s most fearsome lobbies, the way people talk today about the National Rifle Association and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That stature diminished when President Jimmy Carter normalized relations with China in 1979, initiating the new U.S. posture toward the Chinese-Taiwanese dispute that Trump has now scrambled.
On Capitol Hill, much of the direct lobbying comes from TECRO itself.
“They made a real commitment to being a presence on the Hill,” said Lester Munson, a former Senate staffer now with the lobbying firm BGR. “Anytime their issue was on the agenda, they were there. It’s pretty impressive work by them.”
Taiwan pays for congressional staff to visit the country on trips, according to a State Department list of approved programs obtained by POLITICO. Such sponsored travel would be illegal coming from corporate lobbyists, but is allowed from foreign governments under the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act. Not only that, but the trips are never publicly disclosed or even centrally tracked.
In 2012, Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) personally paid back a Taiwan university for a luxurious trip to Taiwan that was arranged by lobbying firm Park Strategies, then working for TECRO.
Staffers, researchers and diplomats can be found mingling every October at Taiwan’s National Day celebration at its sprawling Twin Oaks estate in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. The event typically features a circus-size tent full of food and drink, according to people who have attended.
Taiwanese interests also benefit from a large and vocal Taiwanese-American community, with groups such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs. Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, employs Chinese-speaking staff and has a special Taiwan-focused biography on his website.
Royce visited Taiwan on an official delegation this May and June, joined by Reps. Bill Flores (R-Texas) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), according to congressional records.
“I don’t think it’s that big of an issue,” Royce said of Trump’s phone call on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday.
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