Move Over, Hunter Biden. Meet Eric Branstad, the China Ambassador’s Son Who Got Rich in Trump’s Swamp.
Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC
In April 2018, the Trump administration banned Chinese telecom equipment giant ZTE from buying American-made parts, threatening to cripple the company’s worldwide operations. An opening salvo in Trump’s trade war with China, the measure was extreme. But ZTE had violated export controls by selling technology to Iran and North Korea, then breached an agreement with the Commerce Department in which it had pledged to stop. Moreover, ZTE makes technology that can be used for surveillance and has ties to the Chinese military.
Just one month later, however, President Donald Trump unexpectedly tweeted that he might be open to a deal that would free ZTE from the Commerce Department penalty, known as a denial order. “Too many jobs in China lost,” he wrote. Republican lawmakers, Washington analysts, and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton were aghast. Bolton later calledthe sudden reversal “policy by personal whim and impulse.” But the White House moved forward anyway. By early June, Commerce and ZTE had reached a preliminary deal. In July, the Commerce Department lifted the ban.
ZTE’s path back into business with American suppliers has long been shrouded in mystery. Some critics highlighted the role of lobbyists working for ZTE. Shortly after the Commerce Department penalized ZTE, a law firm representing the Chinese company started paying the lobbying outfit Mercury Public Affairs $75,000 a month to unwind the order. Mercury partner and former Trump campaign adviser Bryan Lanza took on the account. But an Intercept investigation has found that Lanza traveled to China with a Mercury colleague and fellow Trump campaign veteran: former Commerce Department official Eric Branstad, who is also the son of Terry Branstad, then Trump’s ambassador to China.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in
Eric Branstad was close with Trump and had joined Mercury just three months earlier, after a stint advising Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He had a checkered past, marred by killing two people in a car crash when he was a teenager, and had made money off his relationships with his father and Trump. In his home state of Iowa, his activities would spark comparisons to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Three days after Trump’s curious tweet, Lanza began emailing and calling officials at the Commerce Department on ZTE’s behalf. In June, he and Eric Branstad traveled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese government groups, including a chamber of commerce established by the Chinese Communist Party’s influential United Front Work Department that has ties to large Chinese companies. ZTE is an executive board member of a closely affiliated group. That second group is a unit of the chamber’s parent organization, according to Gerry Groot, an expert on the United Front at the University of Adelaide.
Documents show that Eric Branstad did not register as an agent for ZTE, despite the timing of Mercury’s contract with the Chinese firm and his decision to accompany the ZTE lobbying representative while in China. His meetings with Chinese government groups were revealed only in posts published in Chinese by his hosts.
If Eric Branstad had contacted his former colleagues at Commerce about ZTE, it would have violated an ethics pledge he signed when he joined the department in 2017. The pledge barred him from lobbying the agency for five years after leaving his job there.
In an interview with The Intercept, Eric Branstad said he has not lobbied the Commerce Department in any way for any client, and added that since joining Mercury, he has met with former administration colleagues only on a personal basis: “If I do anything, it’s with old friends for birthdays and stuff like that. We don’t talk about business.” His meetings in China with Lanza included no “business or policy discussions,” he said, noting that the trip was motivated only by a desire to “culturally connect and show good feelings.”
“I didn’t even know about [ZTE] until it was over,” Branstad said. “I was not part of that account. I chose specifically to stay out of everything China because there would be a natural conflict with my dad being there.”
Chart: Soohee Cho/The Intercept
But emails and Commerce Department calendars obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and shared with The Intercept suggest that Eric Branstad worked with Lanza on and off after they met on the 2016 Trump campaign. Internally, Mercury Public Affairs, which represents a number of Chinese clients and was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for its work representing other foreign interests, touted the China trip as a bid to grow the firm’s influence in Asia. Eric Branstad’s and Lanza’s hosts in Beijing noted in the accounts published on their websites that the two lobbyists discussed issues that veered close to the ZTE denial order, including Trump administration policy toward China and the nascent trade war. Lanza and Mercury did not respond to requests for comment.
Conflicts of interest, Chinese influence peddling, and Hunter Biden’s activities are flashpoints in the 2020 presidential race. In August, the Trump campaign unveiled a two-minute ad detailing the younger Biden’s equity stake in a Chinese investment fund that relied on financing from state-owned banks. The ad notes that the deal was struck around the time Hunter’s father, Joe Biden, led negotiations in China on behalf of the Obama administration, raising concerns that China exercises undue influence over the Biden family. Trump has accused his opponent of being soft on China, dubbing him “Beijing Biden,” and has highlighted Hunter Biden’s brushes with the law and history of substance abuse.
In response to the criticism, Hunter Biden, a former lobbyist, resigned from the board of the investment fund, known as BHR Partners, last year. On Wednesday, the New York Post reported on emails it claimed were recovered from a laptop dropped off at a Delaware repair shop in 2019. One email allegedly recovered from the device shows Vadym Pozharskyi, a Ukrainian official with Burisma Holdings, thanking Hunter Biden for arranging a meeting with the then-vice president, while another shows Hunter Biden charting a potential growth strategy for his foreign ventures, including efforts to seek energy-related business opportunities in China. The Biden campaign has said that they “reviewed Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the Post, ever took place.” The unusual source of the emails — a laptop repairman in contact with Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has repeatedly tried to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine — has raised suspicions about the Post story.
Eric Branstad’s career in and out of the Trump administration may be the bigger story. When his father was governor of Iowa, Eric Branstad took in money from local political candidates for consulting and public relations work through a limited liability corporation that he controls. When he joined the Commerce Department, he filed a personal financial disclosure that omitted sources of income and debt, according to campaign finance and mortgage records. At Commerce, his interactions with Trump campaign veteran Rick Gates, the former business partner of indicted 2016 campaign chief Paul Manafort, drew attention. And while he did not apparently violate any laws by traveling to China to drum up business, Eric Branstad broke with ethical norms, said Thomas J. Spulak, an expert on lobbying compliance at the law firm King & Spalding.
“It may look like he is trading on relationships with people in the government,” Spulak said. “And here it’s the father who is ambassador, who could be a powerful influence in generating business. It’s a political optics issue.”
Eric Branstad bristled at the suggestion that he had benefitted from his father’s positions.“I’ve built my own credibility, and I’ve done my own hard work,” he said. “In fact, I never lead with my family name.”
There is no indication that Eric Branstad’s activities affected Terry Branstad’s departure from his post as ambassador to China earlier this month. Relations between the United States and China are strained, and Terry Branstad outlasted his three immediate predecessors. A longtime friend of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Terry Branstad was known as a counterweight to Trump administration hawks, having bucked calls to take a more aggressive stance on China. But the senior Branstad was not the only one with contacts in Beijing.
One of the groups the ambassador’s son met with in China is overseen by the United Front Work Department, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee that has recently faced heightened scrutiny in Washington. In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the United Front as “the CCP’s official overseas propaganda tool,” but in reality, it’s much more than that: a far-reaching agency that aims to co-opt important parts of Chinese society, including private businesses and entrepreneurs, and indirectly influence policy overseas.
The host group, the China International Chamber of Commerce for the Private Sector, or CICCPS, assists China’s largest companies with overseas investments while keeping tabs on their activities. On that same China trip, Lanza and Eric Branstad visited a group with ties to China’s Ministry of State Security. Accompanying the two Mercury lobbyists in Beijing was an Iowa consultant who represents Chinese business interests, and who played a prominent role in an FBI trade secrets theft investigation involving a Chinese agriculture company. That same week, Eric Branstad held an event on the trade war in Shanghai for U.S. businesspeople, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018.
Other interest groups appear to have leaned on Eric Branstad for his connections to the administration. In 2019, for example, the Trump administration threatened new tariffs on European quartz surfaces that could have effectively doubled the price for a range of construction materials. Cosentino, a Spanish construction materials company that supplies nearly half of the U.S. quartz market, retained Mercury to prevent the decision. After a lobbying push led by Lanza that included Eric Branstad and other members of the Mercury team, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department relented and left Cosentino products off a list of European goods that faced tariffs. Despite his involvement, Eric Branstad was not registered to lobby for Cosentino.
And about a year after leaving Commerce and joining Mercury, he was one of two lobbyists listed as representing InterDigital Administrative Solutions, a U.S. mobile technology company that sought to influence the Commerce Department and Congress amid a patent battle with Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The Lobbying Disclosure Act allows registrants to file separate fields for each lobbyist to distinguish the issues and agencies each individual targets. The Mercury form listed Eric Branstad as sharing responsibility for Commerce Department lobbying.
Eric Branstad confirmed that InterDigital is his client but said that he did not lobby Commerce on their behalf. He added that he would have Mercury look into why his name was listed as lobbying his former agency.
The revelations about Eric Branstad’s work in China, in particular, come as Trump is blaming the country for the devastation wrought by Covid-19, calling it “the China virus.” “Eric’s in Shanghai with bankers and lawyers trying to advance his lobbying career, while Trump and his allies are going after China,” said Chris Laursen, a longtime political and union activist from Ottumwa, Iowa. “It’s an interesting paradox.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, left, walks past his son Eric at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 12, 2016.
Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP
The Branstad name represents the most powerful political dynasty in Iowa history. Between 1983 and 1999, Terry Branstad served an unprecedented four consecutive terms as governor, making him the state’s longest serving chief executive. In 2010, after a stint as president of Des Moines University, Terry Branstad ran for governor again and won, serving until 2017, when he became ambassador to China. “He was jokingly referred to as ‘governor for life’ until he was appointed by Trump,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist.
As the eldest of Terry Branstad’s three children, Eric Branstad grew up immersed in the state’s insular political world. In his teenage years, he was often the one making the headlines. In 1991, at the age of 16, he drove a van originally purchased by his father’s campaign committee across a median into a head-on collision that killed two people. The crash sparked a political scandal and a highly public lawsuit. According to the Des Moines Register, Eric Branstad ended up paying only $34.50 in fines and court costs for improper passing, a penalty that many Iowans saw as reflecting his father’s influence.“A lot of kids have problems,” Terry Branstad said at a press conference in 1995. “This kid has had a lot of problems.”
The fatal crash was followed by other violations — including public intoxication, using a fake ID to buy beer, and illegal possession of alcohol — before Eric Branstad was sent off to a military academy in Missouri. “A lot of kids have problems,” Terry Branstad said at a press conference in 1995. “This kid has had a lot of problems.”
Eric Branstad told The Intercept that the crash still haunts him; he blamed it on being an inexperienced young driver on a dangerous road.
“I had never had a drink before, I had never done drugs before, I had never done anything,” he said. “The following years were not good years. It was very hard being in the limelight.”
But many in Iowa still remember those early run-ins with the law. “He’s the epitome of white privilege: The governor’s son killed someone and is not held accountable,” said John R. Campbell Jr., a factory worker and lifelong resident of Des Moines. “As an African American, I don’t think I’d get that break.”
Some of Eric Branstad’s bigger breaks came later, as he carved out a life in politics. Because of Iowa’s outsized role in the presidential election, it attracts an influx of money and influence peddlers every four years. Eric Branstad found work on a series of state and national campaigns, including George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection bid.
In 2006, he went to work for Lincoln Strategies Group, an influential political consultancy and lobbying firm co-founded by Charles W. Larson Jr., the son of one of Terry Branstad’s former political appointees. Later renamed LS2group, the firm has taken contracts on behalf of big oil and agriculture interests, as well as the Saudi government. The Republican-leaning consultancy would continue to figure in Eric Branstad’s work, even after he formally left it in 2008. The public relations and consulting outfit he started in 2011, Matchpoint Strategies, briefly shared an address with LS2. Eric Branstad said that he rented office space from the company, but he also noted that he is close with Larson, who is the godfather of one of his children.“He’s the epitome of white privilege: The governor’s son killed someone and is not held accountable.”
As his father began his second period as governor in 2010, Eric Branstad took in tens of thousands of dollars from candidates and PACs through Matchpoint for fundraising and consulting work. “The nepotism is the most striking thing about Eric, the thing that comes to mind,” said Adam Mason, the state policy director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “We don’t have a lot of respect for his political acumen. He’s been riding the coattails of his dad.”
He supplemented his work at Matchpoint with a job as president of America’s Renewable Future, which advocates for ethanol, a powerful interest in Iowa because of the state’s role as major corn producer. The nonprofit group has not filed tax forms since 2014, despite receiving a $1.25 million grant in 2015, according to a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
Eric Branstad wasn’t the only member of the family to gain influence from his father’s return to office. In 2013, Terry Branstad appointed his youngest son, Marcus Branstad, to the Iowa Natural Resources Commission, which oversees state parks and forests. Marcus Branstad also works as a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for the largest chemical concerns in the country, a position that he uses to influence Iowa lawmakers.
But Eric Branstad’s star rose even higher, fueled by his role in the Trump campaign.
Eric Branstad first met Trump in an hourlong encounter in Des Moines in 2015, as Trump was angling for a presidential run, the younger Branstad recently told an Iowa youth group in a video interview. He and Trump met at least twice more before the 2016 Iowa caucus, at an ethanol plant and an energy conference. By then, Eric Branstad was touring Iowa in an America’s Renewable Future RV, hounding Trump’s then-opponent Ted Cruz, who had angered ethanol proponents with his stance on fuel standards.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=theintercept&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=727635542016335873&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Ftheintercept.com%2F2020%2F10%2F15%2Feric-branstad-trump-china-ambassador%2F&siteScreenName=theintercept&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=500px
In May 2016, Trump flew Eric Branstad to New York to offer him a job as his Iowa campaign director. “I actually wasn’t after a job, but I obviously built a great relationship with Mr. Trump,” he told the youth group. After that, he added, “We were off to the races.”
Eric Branstad brought crucial connections to the campaign. “He knows Iowa, he knows Iowa politics, and he knows Republican elites in particular around the state,” said Andrew Green, a political scientist at Central College in Iowa and the author of “From the Iowa Caucuses to the White House: Understanding Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral Victory in Iowa.” “For a relative outsider like Donald Trump, that was key.”
But his principal asset was likely his family. The same month that his son went to work for the campaign, Terry Branstad endorsed Trump. A seminal moment came on July 28, 2016, the night Hillary Clinton gave her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. As the senior Branstad spoke at a packed Trump rally in Davenport, Iowa, his son watched from the sidelines. “They’ve abandoned middle America,” Terry Branstad said of the Democratic Party. Then he added: “They are now the party of the establishment, the elite in Washington, D.C.” It was a dubious statement from a man who embodies the Iowa political establishment.
The Iowa Republican guard quickly fell in line behind the Branstads and stood by Trump until the election, even after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump bragged that his “star” status meant he could grab women “by the pussy.”The Iowa Republican guard quickly fell in line behind the Branstads and stood by Trump until the election, even after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape.
“To have the governor’s support at a time when establishment Republicans around the country had real doubts about nominating Donald Trump was huge,” said Link, the Democratic strategist. “Terry Branstad made it absolutely acceptable for every Republican in Iowa to get fully behind Trump. And they have been behind him every minute since without wavering.” Unlike other states, Iowa did not give rise to a Never Trump movement.
Iowa went to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump ended up winning the state by a staggering 9 percentage points in 2016. A month after the election, Trump appointed Terry Branstad ambassador to China, while Eric Branstad worked as the liaison to U.S. governors on Trump’s troubled inaugural committee. Soon afterward, Eric Branstad was appointed senior White House adviser to the Commerce Department.
While working on Trump’s 2016 campaign and inauguration, Eric Branstad encountered several people who would figure in his time at the Commerce Department and Mercury Public Affairs. One of them was Mercury’s Lanza, who was then an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition team. Another was Rick Gates, who would go on to plead guilty to lying and conspiracy against the United States. After years of peddling his family ties in Iowa, Eric Branstad had found a home on the Trump team.
When he was appointed to the Commerce Department in January 2017, Eric Branstad filed his public financial disclosure report, as required by law.
The form showed no debts, assets, or income from outside sources. But public records paint a different picture. Federal Election Commission filings show that Matchpoint, Eric Branstad’s LLC, collected $79,250 the previous year from the Republican National Committee and the Trump 2016 election campaign — income that should have been reported on the disclosure form.
The Polk County Recorder’s office shows a mortgage on his Des Moines home when Eric Branstad entered the Trump administration, a debt that also should have been disclosed.
“If it can be established that Branstad knowingly and willfully failed to include the information, he could be subject to civil and criminal penalties,” noted Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center, adding that penalties for a civil action can range up to about $62,000.Eric Branstad’s financial disclosure report showed no debts, assets, or income from outside sources. But public records paint a different picture.
Eric Branstad told The Intercept that he filed an amended financial disclosure, but none of the forms that Commerce Department ethics officials released to The Intercept contained updated information about his campaign payments or debts.
Soon after arriving at Commerce, Eric Branstad became embroiled in a controversy involving Gates. After leaving the Trump campaign, Gates worked with Trump’s close friend Thomas Barrack on the inauguration and then joined Barrack’s investment company Colony NorthStar. In March 2017, while working at Colony, Gates emailed Eric Branstad a white paper Barrack had written about a plan to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia. An investigation by the House Oversight Committee later found that Barrack stood to profit from the proposal. Gates asked Eric Branstad to set up a meeting about the proposal.
“I discussed with Secretary Ross this morning and this is a priority,” Eric Branstad replied. He later helped facilitate a meeting between Barrack and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at Barrack’s home in Los Angeles — an encounter that Gates described in an email as “casual and obviously private and OTR,” or off the record.
As they drove to the event, Eric Branstad forwarded a copy of Ross’s testimony for an upcoming House hearing to Gates and asked him to print it, despite a Commerce Department policy barring employees from sharing critical information with people outside the department.
It was not the only time Eric Branstad helped Gates while at Commerce. Gates separately contacted him seeking the Commerce Department’s endorsement of a defense contract with the Romanian government. The firm seeking the contract, Circinus, was headed by Trump ally and Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy. Eric Branstad passed on the request to Commerce Department staff, the New York Times reported. Commerce later provided an endorsement.
Nexus for Influence
Eric Branstad waded into China-related work as his father embarked on the ambassadorship in Beijing. During the younger Branstad’s time at Commerce, Ross wielded significant influence over U.S. trade policy with China. Trump had campaigned on narrowing America’s trade imbalance with Beijing, but Ross and others in the administration still believed it was possible to win concessions without playing hardball. Eric Branstad joined the secretary for several key trade discussions involving China. He also accompanied Trump on the president’s November 2017 trade mission to Beijing.
Senior White House Commercial Adviser Eric Branstad addresses the China General Chamber of Commerce in Chicago on June 29, 2017.
Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Wire
People representing Chinese business and government interests swirled around the administration, and Eric Branstad’s emails and calendars reveal his role as a point person for Chinese government and business interests seeking to influence U.S. policy. In July 2017, for example, he received an email from Ni Pin, president of the American arm of Wanxiang Group, a Chinese conglomerate with a substantial auto parts business. Wanxiang had recently donated $300,000 to Muscatine, Iowa, to fund a study abroad program.
Ni asked Eric Branstad about a proposed business roundtable event at the Commerce Department featuring executives from Wanxiang and other companies, adding, “Anything Wanxiang America could support for this event? ([S]ince 2010, we invested more than 10 billion in USA, and all being very successful.)”
Eric Branstad declined the offer but said he would be “delighted” to meet with Wanxiang Chairman Lu Guanqiu at the Commerce Department.
In at least one instance, a lobbyist who approached Eric Branstad about China claimed to have been sent by the elder Branstad. “Tesla folks were visiting your dad in China concerning the Chinese tax on US made vehicles among other issues,” wrote Ashley Davis, an outside lobbyist to Tesla, in an August 2017 email to Eric Branstad. “Your dad thought we should touch base with you here in DC as well. (I am sure you love when he does that!),” she added.
Some of the lobbyists and interest groups with whom Eric Branstad met at Commerce would later figure in his work at Mercury. In October 2017, Eric Branstad’s assistant accepted a calendar invite from Lanza, who had become a partner at Mercury, to discuss a “China trip.” In an email, Lanza noted that the meeting would include Charlie Yao, the chief executive of Yuhuang Chemical, a Chinese concern that is building a $1.85 billion methanol production plant in Louisiana. The company had retained Mercury to lobby American officials.
Just days later, Eric Branstad flew to China for Trump’s whirlwind trade mission. Joining the mission was his close friend and neighbor Li Zhao, who runs a Des Moines-based consultancy called China Iowa Group. Seven months later, Eric Branstad would return to China with Lanza and Zhao. This time, he was a lobbyist on Mercury’s payroll, and his father had been thrust into the center of the trade war as ambassador.
Gov. Terry Branstad, fourth from the far left, and Xi Jinping, third from the far left, at the Governor’s Office in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1985.
Making Friends in Beijing
Ex-Ambassador Terry Branstad’s ties to China extend back decades, to a 1985 trip that Xi Jinping made to Iowa when the Chinese leader was deputy party secretary of Hebei province, Iowa’s sister state. In the decades that followed, Terry Branstad looked to China to expand the market for Iowa corn, soy, and pork. Ahead of his confirmation as ambassador, political and business interests in the state lined up to peddle influence, hoping that the appointment would boost Iowa’s exports to China.
Among them was Eric Branstad’s former employer LS2, which in March 2017 brokered a deal with China Iowa Group, the Des Moines-based consultancy led by Zhao. According to an article posted on LS2’s website, the two groups pledged to “represent both U.S. interests in China and China businesses seeking customers in the United States.”
Such work had once brought Zhao, who also goes by her full Chinese name Zhao Lijuan, scrutiny from the FBI. In 2012, she figured in an investigation into trade secrets theft by a Chinese agricultural company that had approached her about being a consultant. Court documents reveal that the FBI searched her computer, obtained her email and Skype subscriber information and contacts, and recorded several of her phone calls with a defendant in the case, in which he appeared to allude to his company’s efforts to steal corn seed lines from U.S. competitors. According to a brief filed by federal prosecutors in Iowa, the FBI’s investigation focused in part on suspected “insiders” at U.S. seed companies who might have tipped off the defendant. Zhao was a former employee of the Iowa-based seed company Stine.
Both Terry Branstad and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out the case as an egregious example of Chinese industrial espionage. In 2016, the defendant Zhao spoke to was sentenced to three years in prison. But Zhao, who was not charged, emerged from the ordeal unscathed. She continued to represent clients in both the United States and China.
It is unclear what China-related accounts LS2 and China Iowa Group took on following Terry Branstad’s confirmation. Neither Zhao nor Larson, of LS2, responded to repeated requests to comment. But when the trade war broke out the following year, Iowa’s agricultural exports — a focus area of both consultancies — were thrust into the spotlight.
In March 2018, Trump announced the first in a series of tariffs on Chinese goods, and relations between the two superpowers hit a new low. China hit back with tariffs on U.S. pork and soy that were a blow to the Midwestern economy.
The Trump administration was separately locked in a contentious battle with China over telecommunications networks and critical technologies. Among the most controversial players was ZTE, because of concerns that the Chinese government might use its telecom equipment to surveil global networks.
The Commerce Department hit ZTE with the parts ban in April 2018. A target in the tech war, ZTE now became a bargaining chip in the trade war, and two seemingly unconnected issues — telecommunications and agriculture — were suddenly linked. Overturning the ZTE ban wasn’t just critical for Mercury. It was also essential for people in the Branstads’ home state of Iowa. A deal with ZTE might prompt China to scrap the agricultural tariffs.A target in the tech war, ZTE now became a bargaining chip in the trade war, and two seemingly unconnected issues — telecommunications and agriculture — were suddenly linked.
Eric Branstad had started at Mercury just weeks before the onset of the trade war. His name does not appear on any of Mercury’s Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, filings from its work with Chinese clients. On paper, the ZTE work went to Lanza, who has represented several controversial foreign accounts, including the Russian energy firm EN+, the Chinese surveillance camera manufacturer Hikvision, and a Latvian banker accused of laundering money for North Korea. But in June 2018, Eric Branstad joined Lanza in Beijing.
The ex-ambassador’s son told The Intercept that Zhao set up their meetings there and helped translate.
In Beijing, Zhao, Lanza, and Eric Branstad visited the China Development Research Foundation, a government-funded entity with ties to Chinese intelligence. The Development Research Center, which oversees the foundation, is a government think tank that plays a critical role in advising state leaders, including members of the powerful State Council. It’s also a favorite stomping group for agents from the Ministry of State Security, which handles both domestic and foreign intelligence and is sometimes described as a cross between the FBI and CIA.
“MSS officers like to use the Development Research Center as cover,” said Alex Joske, an expert on Chinese influence operations at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. He added that the center tends to harbor seasoned agents: “It’s not just picking up the title when it’s convenient for a particular task. It’s covers that are held for many years and by many officers.”
The post about the meeting on the foundation’s website describes Lanza and Eric Branstad as “Mercury’s public affairs representatives.” Eric Branstad told The Intercept that while his affiliation with Mercury might have come up in passing, “There weren’t any contracts or business dealings, and no one got paid any money.” He told attendees at the Shanghai event he hosted for U.S. businesspeople that Mercury planned to open a China office, according to the Journal.
That same day, Zhao, Lanza, and Eric Branstad participated in a forum on trade issues hosted by CICCPS, the chamber of commerce directed by the United Front.
Joske called CICCPS “a fake civil society group.” “If you’re not really accustomed, it could sound like it’s a grassroots organic business chamber, when in fact it exists to expand the party’s influence over different parts of society.” Such groups often organize meetings with prominent foreigners as a way to give their members access to policymakers from overseas. CICCPS is overseen by the United Front’s All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. While still at the Commerce Department, Eric Branstad spoke at a Chicago meeting of the federation’s international-facing unit, the Chinese business chamber whose executive board membership includes ZTE.
At the CICCPS event, the Mercury lobbyists discussed Trump’s approach to policy and the need for “win-win cooperation” between the United States and China, according to the post on the organization’s site. A red banner above the table where they sat read in English and Chinese: “Where is the (potential) US-China Trade War going?”
Eric Branstad denied discussing either ZTE or policy at either event. “I told really fun, comedic stories about the campaign and about what makes President Trump so great,” he said.
The Commerce Department announced its deal with ZTE a few weeks later. “It was bizarre to see such a dramatic measure then radically reversed in a manner that wasn’t terribly transparent,” said Elsa Kania, an expert on Chinese technology at the Center for a New American Security. Even at the time, the deal was perceived as “transactional,” she added: “That really undercuts the credibility of U.S. institutions.”
Eric Branstad, senior adviser for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in Iowa, waits to be introduced during an Iowa Trump Victory “Make Campus Great Again” event on Aug. 25, 2020, at the Sports Column bar in Iowa City, Iowa.
Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC
The Art of the Deal
Both Branstads are now back in Iowa, where Eric Branstad is a senior adviser to the 2020 Trump campaign. In recent months, he has toured Iowa in a red Trump bus, stumping for the president at boat parades and a “Back the Blue Bingo MAGA Meetup.” Eric Branstad recently claimed in a call with local media that he has logged more than 8,000 miles crisscrossing the state to campaign, and that his father planned to join him on the trail.
“We’ll have him scheduled fully for 28 days,” he said.
Beyond 2020, Eric Branstad may soon have another family member in politics. Last week, he told local radio journalist Bob Leonard that he was encouraging his wife Adrianne to run for office.
Trump’s lead has narrowed in Iowa, where the agricultural economy is hurting because of the trade war, but he continues to view the Branstads as an asset. Recent campaign finance records show no payments to Eric Branstad, who told The Intercept that he is not being paid by the campaign. At a rally in Des Moines on Wednesday night, Trump praised the Branstads, gushing about Terry Branstad’s tenure as ambassador and his friendship with Xi.
He added: “His son Eric is even better than him.”