How a Tycoon Linked to Chinese Intelligence Became a Darling of Trump Republicans
Ultimately, Guo landed in New York, where he submitted his application for the penthouse at the Sherry-Netherland. It was increasingly clear that he might never go back to China. He needed to master a new terrain, and so he started with a game he knew: intelligence. Around the world, the FBI maintains thousands of formal and informal sources, ranging from government bureaucrats to shoe shiners who monitor foot traffic on a street corner. Some have civic motives, in the way of a grandmother on a porch who quietly notes the make and model of a drug dealer’s car. But in most cases the relationships are transactional. The source wants money or protection from prosecution; the handler, as one former agent told me, is “trying to juice as much utility out of that person” as possible.
In New York, Guo spoke to the FBI about Chinese leaders’ financial and private lives, according to two sources familiar with the arrangement. “He knew who had girlfriends, who had boyfriends,” a former Bureau official recalled. More important, Guo knew which party families profited from which companies: “Just going to Miles and asking him these questions will save you three or four months of analytical work.” In one instance, the official said, Guo provided information about Xi Jinping’s daughter while she was attending college in the US
The CIA was less impressed; Analysts concluded that Guo could not be trusted to keep secrets. But the FBI stayed in contact. “If you ask ten different FBI and CIA people about Miles, you’re going to get seven different answers,” the former Bureau official said. “It’s not always perfect. But no source is.” The official added, “He knows that he needs us to protect him. So he’ll constantly give just enough.” Guo looked for other forms of protection, too, trying to hire people with connections to the local power structure. In New York, he invited Jeh Johnson, who ran the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, to his apartment at the Sherry-Netherland. Johnson had left the government and was working as a lawyer at a white-shoe firm, and Guo wanted to hire him. During their meeting, Johnson responded politely, telling Guo, “I feel like you’re somebody I want to help.” After doing more research into Guo, however, Johnson declined to take him on.
In China, Guo had demonstrated an unshakable instinct for aligning himself with politicians who could help him. In the US, he seemed to determine quickly who his likeliest benefactors were. Since Xi Jinping became Party Secretary, in 2012, he has reasserted Party control, reversed reforms, and expanded China’s pursuit of power abroad. In Washington, a rare consensus grew among Republicans and Democrats that engaging China, in pursuit of cooperation and openness, has failed. But the two sides disagree on what to do about it. Democrats tend to oppose Xi’s government on an array of issues—China’s mass internment of Muslims, its pressure on Taiwan, its military activities in the South China Sea—but they still seek cooperation on climate change, health, and weapons proliferation. Republicans have made aggression toward China a measure of conservative credibility, and have edged closer to declaring the Communist Party illegitimate.
In January, 2017, soon after Trump’s inauguration, Guo activated his Twitter account and sat for the first of a series of interviews in the overseas Chinese media. He accused some of China’s most senior leaders of corruption. He focused on Wang Qishan, the Party’s anti-corruption chief, claiming that his relatives were hidden stakeholders in HNA, the profitable parent company of Hainan Airlines, and that they owned American real estate worth as much as ten million dollars. Guo posted personal information online, including passports and flight records. (HNA denied the claims and sued Guo for defamation.)
He started live-streaming from the penthouse and the deck of Lady May, offering other salacious, often unproved, allegations. His social-media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, mostly Chinese expatriates—many of whom avidly supported Trump, because of his criticisms of China. Guo declared it the beginning of a “whistle-blower movement,” and extolled his own courage: “Guo Wengui is from the grass roots, born as a farmer, and not afraid of death.”
In China, Guo’s disclosures came as a bombshell. They arrived in the run-up to a major Communist conclave, the 19th Party Congress, which would determine the top leadership for the next five years. The accusations were widely perceived as sabotage orchestrated by Xi’s enemies, or perhaps by meddling Americans, in order to interfere with the coronation.
The party struck back swiftly; it asked Interpol, the global police organization, to issue a “red notice” seeking Guo’s extradition. A video confession from his former patron, the spymaster Ma Jian, was uploaded to YouTube. Looking bedragled and reading carefully, Ma said that he had accepted some sixty million yuan in bribes from Guo and had repeatedly intervened to aid his businesses. (Guo has denied bribing Ma.)
Online, Chinese censors sought to block any trace of Guo’s accusations, but their efforts were evidently not stringent enough: ordinary Internet users were circumventing the firewall in large numbers. Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at UC Berkeley, studied trends in web searches from mainland China and found a pattern of sharp surges on days when Guo broadcast. Xiao called it “the Guo Wengui effect.”
The actual effect on Chinese politics was less clear. Although Wang, the target of the attacks, remained in power, one of his top aides was later imprisoned. HNA went bankrupt, and senior executives were detained by police. In 2018, the company’s co-chairman fell off a wall while posing for a photograph in France. The police ruled out foul play, but Guo, in his new role as a media personality, was becoming an avid conspiracist. He called a press conference in New York and suggested that the executive had been killed because he “knew too much.”
One day in May, 2017, a team of four officers from China’s security services—Guo’s former allies—turned up at the Sherry-Netherland. The lobby is an ornate place, with hand-loomed French carpets, marble mosaics, and a ceiling painted with cherubs inspired by frescoes at the Vatican. The officers didn’t linger; they headed for the penthouse, where Guo was expecting them.
Guo and the security officers spoke for hours, arrayed on the gold-colored furniture in his solarium. The government was making an audacious push to get him back. He later released excerpts of a recording, in which they could be heard discussing a deal: return to China, and they would leave his family alone and unfreeze his assets. The officers, Guo said afterwards, had brought his wife and their daughter from Beijing; permitting his family to leave what a gesture of good will. Guo didn’t trust them. “Unless I get Secretary Xi’s approval, I won’t go back,” he said.
The visit caught the attention of Guo’s new contacts at the FBI Later that day, the Chinese team was at Penn Station, on the way to Washington, when agents from the Bureau stopped them. The FBI ordered the Chinese officers to leave the country, and to stay away from Guo. Two days later, though, they returned to his apartment, and a debate grew within the US government over whether the provocation was significant enough that the FBI should arrest the officers. A national-security official who was involved in the discussions recalled, “My view was, we had to impose a penalty on them.”
As the Chinese team headed to JFK airport for an afternoon flight to Beijing, the Bureau dispatched agents to intercept them. The US Attorney’s office in Brooklyn prepared charges of visa fraud and extortion. But the State Department expressed a concern: the Chinese officers might have diplomatic immunity, and arresting them could expose Americans in China to retaliation. A compromise was reached, under which the Bureau could make a limited show of force. Just before the flight took off, agents confiscated the Chinese delegation’s phones. (In retribution, according to the national-security official, the Chinese later confiscated a notebook from a US diplomat as she boarded a plane out of the country.)
Having failed to entice Guo to return home, authorities in China tried to force him out of the United States. They made contact with Steve Wynn, who was then the finance chair of the Republican National Committee. Wynn, a hotelier, was contending with recent restrictions on his casino operations in Macau. In June, 2017, according to federal court filings, he spoke by phone with Sun Lijun, the vice-minister of public security, who asked for help in getting Guo back to China. Wynn agreed to raise the issue with President Trump.
In late June, at a dinner in Washington, Wynn conveyed the request and gave Trump’s secretary a packet that included the Interpol notice, press reports, and copies of Guo’s passport. Afterwards, he heard from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist and the deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, who was in contact with Sun Lijun. Broidy texted that Sun was “extremely pleased and said that President Xi Jinping appreciates [the] assistance.” Wynn wrote to another person who was also involved in the communications, “I remain grateful for the privilege of being part of the Macau and PRC business community.”