Opinion: There should be sunlight about the kinds of deals Jared Kushner and Hunter Biden struck overseas

Editor’s Note: Casey Michel is the author of the forthcoming book “Foreign Agents: How American Lobbyists and Lawmakers Threaten Democracy Around the World.” The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

The past few years have seen unprecedented interest and concern, on both sides of the political aisle, about the pernicious influence of foreign funding and foreign influence on the White House. While much of that concern has devolved into partisan rancor, a new, potentially momentous bill proposes to bridge that partisan gap — and tackle the issue head-on.

Casey Michel - Courtesy Versha Sharma
Casey Michel - Courtesy Versha Sharma

The new bill, dubbed the “Presidential Ethics Reform Act,” would force all current and future presidents and vice presidents, as well as their immediate family members, to disclose all foreign payments they receive, as well as notable gifts and loans.

To be sure, the bill isn’t a panacea, as it doesn’t bar this kind of deal-making from presidents or their family members, but only forces them to disclose such financial arrangements. But it is a significant step forward in terms of financial transparency in the executive branch — a topic that has surged in importance for Americans in recent years.

Needless to say, the risks of such entanglements are myriad. Not only do they provide foreign governments a way to finance American politicians, but they allow officials of those nations to far more easily access and lobby presidents and their family members. And without any transparency, the American public is left in the dark about these financial flows — or what foreign governments may be getting out of them.

Indeed, it is a shame that a bill like this is necessary in the first place. As I discovered in researching my forthcoming book, for the first two centuries of the American republic, there were few, if any, foreign funding connections to the White House or the president’s family members, even after previous presidents left office. That began changing toward the end of the 20th century, when figures like President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy Carter, began lobbying on behalf of foreign regimes in places like Libya.

Foreign entanglements picked up in the decades after, especially in the 21st century. Following President Bill Clinton’s departure from office in 2001, he and his wife, Hillary Clinton, oversaw the creation of the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit that soon began taking in millions of dollars from governments around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, with significant sums also coming from a Ukrainian oligarch — and even from a Russian oligarch now sanctioned by the US.

Most obliquely, such funding helped Clinton Foundation revenues spike when Hillary Clinton first became secretary of state — and then collapse when her path to the White House disappeared.

While none of these regimes or figures explicitly said these donations were for currying influence with the Clintons, experts on governmental transparency clearly saw a pattern. “The fact that foundation donors received special access to the secretary of state isn’t surprising, nor is the fall in foundation funding after her 2016 election loss,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), one of the country’s leading anti-corruption watchdogs. “[I]t really looks like they were cozying up to who they thought was going to be the future president.”

While the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations largely steered clear of foreign financial entanglements, former President Donald Trump brought the topic back to clear relevance, in ways never previously seen in American history.

Whether it was hosting Nigerian and Malaysian politicians at his Washington hotel, or signing deals in places like Azerbaijan or Indonesia, or selling condos to leading figures in places like Haiti and Congo-Brazzaville, Trump’s financial ties presented an unparalleled array of foreign links. While some of these links were made public by Trump and his business partners, the details of others — such as the Malaysian government splurging at Trump’s hotel during his presidency — only came out because of congressional investigations.

With the new bill, both sides of the political aisle are getting something they want. The bill’s co-sponsors, California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter and Kentucky Republican Rep. James Comer, likely authored it for starkly divergent reasons.

For Democrats like Porter, Trump’s return to the center of the political stage presented a clear, obvious opportunity to highlight the threat of foreign funding to American politicians, their family members and their businesses. Trump’s political rise, after all, presented an unprecedented introduction of financial entanglements, which also included figures like his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Following his tenure as a White House senior adviser, Kushner signed financial deals with the Serbian government, along with national sovereign wealth funds in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, for Republicans like Comer, who is currently the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, the bill is a way to salve some of the wounds of their recent failed efforts to impeach President Joe Biden. The ham-fisted impeachment effort, led by Comer, flamed out — but it kept the business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, in the news.

While Hunter, unlike Kushner, was never a public official, he nonetheless mirrored Kushner’s efforts in working with multiple foreign firms in places like China and Ukraine. And while there’s no evidence Hunter ever influenced his father’s policies, he nonetheless capitalized on his connections and his last name to open new financial streams — highlighting just how easily family members of leading American politicians could take advantage of their links.

Thankfully, congressional officials on both sides of the aisle appear to finally be stepping up to solve the issue. As Porter correctly said, “These reforms will help restore Americans’ trust in government and strengthen our democracy.” Should this bill pass, it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that the best days of foreign regimes trying to access and sway the White House and presidential family members will be behind us.

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