The campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is tracking “ongoing and serious efforts” by foreign actors to manipulate American voters, efforts that pose a “clear and present danger” to the 2020 election, says Biden’s top foreign policy adviser.
“The system continues to flash red,” Antony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state, said in an interview with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” “What I’m seeing, at the very least, are ongoing and serious efforts, using primarily social media, to try to interfere in the election and in our democracy. ... This is a clear and present danger.”
Blinken didn’t cite any specific new evidence of Russian or other foreign governments manipulating social media during this election cycle. But his comments closely followed the Tuesday release of a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report affirming that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
Controversy over Russian attempts to ensure a Trump reelection also flared after a February House Intelligence Committee briefing by U.S. intelligence officials asserting that the Kremlin has a clear preference for the reelection of President Trump — a conclusion that has been sharply disputed by the White House and the president’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Blinken also suggested the president has problematic ties to the Chinese government, citing a Friday report from Politico that Trump’s company borrowed tens of millions of dollars from a Chinese state-owned bank, as part of a real estate deal involving a New York City office building. Blinken called it “a far more salient issue” than Hunter Biden’s ties to a Chinese private equity firm.
“The president of the United States owes through his company tens — if not hundreds — of millions of dollars to a leading Chinese state-owned entity, the Bank of China, which loaned him, in effect, money for one of his prized real estate possessions in New York,” Blinken said.
The loan was part of a 2012 refinancing of a midtown office building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas for almost $1 billion. Trump’s company owns 30 percent of the building, according to Politico; Vornado Realty Trust owns the rest.
The state-owned Bank of China provided $211 million of the refinancing package, the first loan of its kind by the giant bank in the United States, according to Politico.
Asked about Biden’s son Hunter’s former role on the board of a Chinese private equity fund, Blinken said he couldn’t speak for the former vice president’s son, though he called them “debunked allegations.” Blinken then cited the Politico report, which noted that the president’s debt to the Chinese-owned bank comes due in 2022.
Last night Politico updated its story to note that after the first version of the article was published, the Bank of China issued a statement saying it sold its share of the loan weeks after the deal closed in 2012.
“On November 7, 2012 several financial institutions including the Bank of China participated in a commercial mortgage loan of $950 million to Vornado Realty Trust,” said Peter Reisman, managing director and chief communications officer of Bank of China U.S.A. “Within 22 days, the loan was securitized and sold into the [commercial mortgage-backed securities] market, as is a common practice in the industry. Bank of China has not had any ownership interest in that loan since late November 2012.”
Another public document Politico cites, however, lists the Bank of China as a creditor on the 1290 Avenue of the Americas building. That document was filed in 2017 with the New York City Department of Finance Office of the Register and calls the Bank of China a secured party having a financial interest in the building’s fixtures. According to Politico, the Bank of China described its inclusion on the 2017 document as a “technical error.”
The comments by Blinken — including his references to the Politico story — are the latest indications that links to China are likely to be a central campaign issue for both sides in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and persistent criticism from U.S. officials that the Chinese government has been less than transparent about what it knew about the virus.
Blinken’s remarks come three days after the president’s proclamation at a Tuesday coronavirus briefing that “Nobody has been tougher on China than me.” The president has consistently accused Biden of being “weak on China,” a contention that the Biden campaign has been disputing in recent days, including by airing a new digital ad that slammed the president for how he “rolled over” for the Chinese in not doing more to push for early information on the coronavirus.
“I would be on the phone with China and making it clear: ‘We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on,’” Biden says in the digital ad, which has been controversial since some people, including many on the left, fear it will fuel xenophobia, which has already led to an uptick in hate crimes directed at Asian-Americans.
Blinken said he is deeply troubled by the president’s early and consistent praise for the Chinese government, particularly since it continues to block American scientists from better understanding how the virus spread in the crucial early weeks of the pandemic last fall.
“The problem here is that at the very moment when China was not living up to its responsibilities, instead of pressing the government to do just that, President Trump was praising China — praising it for its leadership on the virus, praising it for its transparency and cooperation,” Blinken said. “And that was exactly the opposite of what was happening.”
Biden is closely monitoring the pandemic, Blinken said, and believes it is important to determine whether the outbreak could be the result of a lab accident in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were reported. He was careful to note that it is important to draw a “big, big, big distinction between something that might have originated accidentally in a lab and something that was conjured up intentionally in a lab.”
“We obviously need to know exactly how this started and originated so that we can do our best to make sure it never happens again if, in fact, it originated accidentally in a lab,” Blinken said. “Instead of holding China to account to meet its responsibilities in sharing information and giving access to our experts, the president did exactly the opposite — he didn’t press them and, to the contrary, he praised them repeatedly, 15 times in January and February, praising the [Chinese] government for its cooperation, for its leadership and for its transparency, which is really mind-boggling since that was exactly the opposite of what was happening.”
Download or subscribe on iTunes: ‘Skullduggery’ from Yahoo News
Blinken didn’t limit his criticism to the president’s management of the coronavirus. He echoed concerns, first expressed by Biden earlier this week, that the president is “gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.”
Moving the election would require an act of Congress since holding the presidential election the first Tuesday in November is set by federal law. Reminded of the difficulty the president would face in trying to postpone the election, Blinken did not back down.
“Particularly in the context of the coronavirus there are real concerns about making sure the election can be conducted both safely and democratically, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it can be,” Blinken said, pointing to South Korea, which just held national legislative elections.
Blinken said the president’s silence about how to hold this fall’s election in a safe and democratic way is worrying, especially since arranging early voting and other programs to enable voters to cast ballots without going to polling places will take time, money and organization. Blinken said the South Korean government had implemented extended early voting, allowed absentee ballots and designed safe public polling places. An estimated 61 percent of South Koreans participated in the election last week, the highest turnout since 1992.
“If the president wanted to do the same thing here, he should be leading the charge right now to make sure that the election comes off safely and democratically in November and making sure that we’re taking steps now, that states are taking steps now, to ensure that,” Blinken said. “To the contrary, we’ve had utter silence.”
Wisconsin’s recent primary and judicial election was called “the most undemocratic in the state’s history” by the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper that usually leans Republican. Along with the Democratic presidential primary, Wisconsin held an election for a state Supreme Court seat, currently held by a Republican who had President Trump’s endorsement in running for reelection. The court is scheduled to rule on a case concerning a plan, pushed by Republicans, to purge more than 200,000 people from the voting rolls.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, had sought to postpone the election or to allow voting by mail, but the Republican-controlled Legislature would not agree. Only five polling places were open in the entire city of Milwaukee, compared to the 180 that were planned, which may have discouraged some voters in the heavily Democratic city.
The Trump-endorsed Republican lost the election and will be replaced by a Democrat.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen efforts made to actually endanger people, [to] not allow them to vote safely,” Blinken said. “We’ve not heard the president say anything about that when this is the moment to do it.”
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