Biden's trip to China with son Hunter under new scrutiny

WASHINGTON — At the time, it seemed mildly noteworthy, but not particularly unusual: then-Vice President Joe Biden, traveling to China on an official visit, had brought his son Hunter Biden along.

And when two appeared in public together in Beijing during the 2013 trip, there were all the typical trappings of a mini-family vacation tacked on to a business trip. With granddaughter Finnegan in tow, the Biden men sipped tea in a Confucian-style teahouse, leafed through books at local shops and treated themselves to mid-afternoon ice cream.

But almost six years later, Biden’s trip to Beijing is coming under new scrutiny amid revelations about President Trump’s efforts to dig up information to corroborate his unproven corruption allegations regarding Biden and his son’s work in Ukraine.

In 2013, I was one of four reporters who traveled aboard Air Force Two with Biden and his son to China, a visit that was sandwiched between stops in Japan and South Korea. When we got on the plane on a bright Sunday afternoon at Joint Base Andrews, the Bidens were already on board, having just flown in from a family Thanksgiving gathering in Nantucket. During his vice presidency, Biden often took family members and especially his grandchildren on his foreign trips, so their presence didn’t raise eyebrows.

As he accompanied his father to China, Hunter Biden was forming a Chinese private equity fund that associates said at the time was planning to raise big money, including from China. Hunter Biden has acknowledged meeting with Jonathan Li, a Chinese banker and his partner in the fund during the trip, although his spokesman says it was a social visit.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: World Food Program USA Board Chairman Hunter Biden speaks on stage at the World Food Program USA's Annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: (L-R) U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Hon. Dan Glickman, and Hunter Biden attend the World Food Program USA's Annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: World Food Program USA Board Chairman Hunter Biden (L) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attend the World Food Program USA's Annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: World Food Program USA Board Chairman Hunter Biden and Kathleen Biden arrive at the World Food Program USA's Annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for World Food Program USA)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: WFP USA Board Chair Hunter Biden speaks during the World Food Program USA's 2016 McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at the Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Kris Connor/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 28: Hunter Biden attends the T&C Philanthropy Summit with screening of "Generosity Of Eye" at Lincoln Center with Town & Country on May 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Town & Country)
US Vice President Joe Biden (C) buys an ice-cream at a shop as he tours a Hutong alley with his granddaughter Finnegan Biden (R) and son Hunter Biden (L) in Beijing on December 5, 2013. Biden said on December 5 China's air zone had caused "significant apprehension" and Beijing needed to reduce Asia-Pacific tensions to protect its growing stake in regional peace and stability. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Andy Wong (Photo credit should read ANDY WONG/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 04: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waves as he walks out of Air Force Two with his granddaughter Finnegan Biden (C) and son Hunter Biden (R) at the airport December 4, 2013 in Beijing, China. Biden is on the first leg of his week-long visit to Asia. (Photo by Ng Han Guan-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden and World Food Program USA Board Chair Hunter Biden taking the Live Below the Line Challenge, eating and drinking on $1.50 a day to raise awareness of global hunger and World Food Programme school feeding efforts around the world, at World Food Program USA on May 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)
President Barack Obama, left, Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Hunter Biden share a laugh during the first half of the NCAA basketball game between Georgetown and Duke at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Saturday January 30, 2010. Georgetown defeated Duke, 89-77. (Photo by Chuck Myers/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 29: Hunter Biden (l) and actor Woody Harrelson pose for a photo at the after party following the 2nd Annual IMPACT Film Festival's screening of "The Messenger" at Posh on October 29, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (2R) arrives at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife Dr. Jill Biden (R), his son Hunter (L) and his daughter-in-law Kathleen for the internment services for U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in Arlington, Virginia, August 29, 2009. Kennedy died late Tuesday after a battle with cancer. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Jim BOURG (Photo credit should read JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - JANUARY 20: Vice-President Joe Biden arrives with his family, wife Jill, sons Hunter and Beau at the reviewing stand to watch the Inaugural Parade from in front of The White House January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, becoming the first African-American to be elected to the President in the US. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: Hunter Biden and guest attend the Artists And Athletes Alliance red carpet event at Inaugural Honors ServiceNation, held at Cafe Milano in Georgetown January 19, 2009 Washington, DC. (Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)

The Chinese business license that brought the new fund into existence was issued by Shanghai authorities 10 days after the trip, with Hunter Biden a member of the board.

Seeking to expand his corruption accusations beyond Ukraine, Trump has accused Hunter Biden of using his trip on Air Force Two to procure $1.5 billion from China for his fund, calling it “a horrible thing.”

Despite Trump's accusations, there have been no allegations of corruption or impropriety on the part of the former vice president.

Hunter Biden’s spokesman, George Mesires, told NBC News that Hunter Biden, when he did acquire partial ownership of the company in October 2017, only put in about $420,000 — a 10 percent interest. That puts the total capitalization of the fund at the time at about $4.2 million — a far cry from the $1.5 billion that Trump has alleged.

"The Washington Post Fact Checker has dismantled this conspiracy theory,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. “Donald Trump's degradation of his office is unacceptable.”

Mesires, said Hunter Biden wasn’t initially an “owner” of the company and has never gotten paid for serving on the board. He said Hunter Biden didn’t acquire an equity interest in the fund until 2017, after his father had left office.

The Washington Post traced the origins of the $1.5 billion figure to a book published by conservative author Peter Schweizer.

Still, his participation in the trip has raised additional questions about why the elder Biden, while in office, did not do more to ensure his son’s overseas business interests did not intersect with his work as vice president, or at least to avoid the perception of potential conflicts of interest.

“I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings,” Biden said last month.

Throughout the weeklong trip, Hunter Biden seemed to duck in and out, sometimes joining his father at events and red-carpet arrival ceremonies, and at other times following his own itinerary, presumably with his daughter, Finnegan. As is customary, the White House did not provide details about what the vice president’s relatives were doing when they were not part of his public events.

Hunter Biden was with his father when Air Force Two touched down in Beijing, sporting a black pea coat as he walked down the stairs behind his daughter and the vice president, who wore his signature aviator sunglasses. A Chinese military honor guard was waiting at the bottom of the staircase, along with top U.S and Chinese diplomats.

IMage: Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Chinese Vice Premier Li Yuanchao before a lunch in Beijing on Dec. 5, 2013.

For the vice president, there was plenty of serious business to attend to in China. The Obama administration was struggling to prove that it was following through on its Asia “rebalance,” a strategy U.S. officials would only privately acknowledge was intended to counter China’s influence. A crisis in the region over a controversial Chinese air defense zone had thrust Biden into the role of trying to persuade Beijing to back down.

In fact, the biggest tension point between the vice president’s office and journalists accompanying Biden on the trip was over the media’s coverage of his five and a half hours of talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reporters had described Biden as “somber” or “subdued” during a photo-op, suggesting the meeting may not have gone well.

“Candor generates trust,” Biden told Xi during the photo-op. “Trust is the basis on which real change — constructive change — is made.”

It was about midnight by the time Biden’s marathon meetings with Xi wrapped up, and Hunter Biden wasn’t present for the meeting. But by the next afternoon, he and his daughter had linked back up with the vice president, joining him for some family time in Beijing’s Dongcheng District, a bustling shopping district not far from Tiananmen Square.

Trailed by a throng of photographers and curious locals, the Bidens spent roughly an hour perusing gift shops, buying Magnum ice cream bars from a street vendor and discussed buying holiday presents for relatives loudly enough that the journalists with them could hear. Hunter Biden, in an apple-red sweater and white collared shirt, also joined his daughter and father for an elaborate, traditional tea ceremony involving “white tea” leaves dried in sunlight and “blue tea” leaves dried in moonlight.

Several former White House officials who traveled with Biden on the trip told NBC News 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.

They said there were no indications the younger Biden had connected his work to his father’s government position. “It just wasn’t something that was on any of our radar screens,” said Jake Sullivan, who was Biden’s national security adviser at the time. “Hunter’s presence didn’t really factor into anything the vice president and the team were thinking about from a policy or diplomacy perspective.”

What else Hunter Biden may have done during the two-day stop in China is unclear. There are no indications he met with Chinese government officials. Mesires, the spokesman, said that he did not conduct any business during the trip — including when he met with Li, the Chinese banker and his nascent business partner.

“How do I go to Beijing, halfway around the world, and not see them for a cup of coffee?” the younger Biden told The New Yorker earlier this year.

Mesires said the fund been in the works for months before the China trip. He said Hunter Biden didn’t take an active role in decisions about establishing the company, whose initial formation documents were filed in November 2013 — the month before the China trip.\

In August, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, raised concerns about Hunter Biden’s meeting with Li in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that warned of Hunter Biden’s “history of investing in and collaborating with Chinese companies.” Grassley’s letter also cited media reports saying Hunter Biden had arranged for Li, his business partner, to shake hands with the vice president while in Beijing.

Also involved in the fund is Devon Archer, a past adviser to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who also partnered with Hunter Biden on his work in Ukraine and a U.S. investment firm.

The renewed interest in the China trip comes as Trump faces an impeachment inquiry from the House after a whistleblower in the intelligence community brought attention to a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Trump, in the call, pressed the Ukrainian leader to investigate Biden and his son as a “favor” and seemed to link it to the sale of Javelin missiles by the U.S. to the Ukrainians.

Democrats say that constituted an abuse of Trump’s presidential powers for political purposes given Biden’s position as a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And Trump, too, has come under scrutiny for potential conflicts between his presidential duties and his family’s overseas business interests — including in China. Authorities in China have granted dozens of trademarks since Trump took office to his daughter and senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump’s brand, even as the president is engaged in high-stakes trade talks with Beijing.

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