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Report links Shawn Steel with Chinese efforts to influence Trump administration

Seal Beach attorney Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member and husband of Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Michelle Steel, was linked in a Wall Street Journal report with an effort by Chinese foreign nationals to influence the Trump administration.

Soon after Donald Trump was sworn in as president in 2017, the Journal reports, donors with ties to the Chinese state gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the president for his re-election campaign in exchange for access, then reported their efforts back to prominent Chinese officials.

Some of these Chinese nationals were guests of Shawn Steel at an invitation-only meeting in San Diego in May 2017 where Republican leaders discussed campaign strategy, according to the Journal.

One of Shawn Steel’s guests, Zhao Gang, works for China’s central government and is connected to Communist party leaders, the newspaper reports. Another, Li Su, is a government-connected Chinese businessman. The third, Tang Ben, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen working for a company that is believed to advise China’s leaders on security issues, donated $300,000 to Trump’s campaign. The fourth was Diamond Bar resident David Wang, a U.S. green card holder who founded the political group Chinese Americans for Trump and, per the Journal, gave $150,000 to Trump’s campaign.

It’s illegal for people who aren’t American citizens or permanent U.S. residents to make political contributions, but it’s not clear whether any of the contributions or other activities reported by the Journal violated any laws. When asked by the Journal for comment, the Federal Election Commission declined, citing “potential for this matter to come before the Commission in an enforcement capacity.”

Shawn Steel told the Journal it would be “false, defamatory and offensive” to suggest he helped the Chinese government’s efforts.

He didn’t respond Wednesday to Register requests for comment on how he was connected to these Chinese nationals, why he invited them to the Republican meeting, and whether he was concerned about giving them access to Republican strategies and figures.

Republican National Committee officials told the Journal they had instructed Steel to “break ties” with several people in the newspaper’s report, saying, “It’s important to do all we can to safeguard our politics from illegal foreign meddling.”

Some experts who study political ethics suggested rules about foreign influence in American politics remain too loose, particularly in the wake of Russia’s efforts to help Trump in the 2016 election.

Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program, said Trump’s refusal to divest himself of businesses with foreign ties, including in China, sets an example that suggests foreign influence is acceptable. Weiner also noted that Trump has sought “dirt” on his opponents from foreign governments.

The Democrat-controlled House impeached Trump for just that behavior and has passed legislation that would close some of the loopholes, but both efforts died in the GOP-lead Senate.

In the meantime, Weiner said that there is “always going to be the world of what’s legal, and the world of what’s ethical; just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Shawn Steel chaired the California Republican Party in the early 2000s, and was the organization’s leader in 2003 when it sparked the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. He was recently reelected to another four-year term as one of three California representatives on the Republican National Committee.

As an attorney, Shawn Steel has represented Dana Rohrabacher, who was Orange County’s longest-serving member of congress. Rohrabacher’s ties to the Russian government led to him being dubbed “Putin’s favorite Congress member” — a label that contributed to his 2018 loss for re-election in the coastal Orange County 48th District. The seat went to Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda of Laguna Beach, ending Rohrabacher’s 15 terms in congress.

Shawn Steel’s wife, Supervisor Michelle Steel, who is registered as chief financial officer at her husband’s law firm, is running against Rouda for that seat.

Michelle Steel did not respond to the Register’s request for comment on the Journal’s story. But the investigation has sparked heated exchanges between her campaign, Rouda’s campaign, and their political parties.

“Let’s not forget that the voters of CA-48 already rejected in 2018 a co-opted Republican official with direct ties to a foreign government, and they don’t want another corrupted Republican who’s lobbying her foreign interests over the needs of Californians,” Andy Orellana with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a press release.

That prompted allegations of racism and sexism from the campaign for Michelle Steel, who is Korean American.

“Michelle’s parents literally fled communist North Korea,” her campaign manager Lance Trover said. “Rouda and his DC pal’s accusations against a woman who came here with her mother and sisters to pursue the American Dream is sexist, discriminatory and racist.”

While Weiner said recent incidents of international influence on elections might suggest to some that it is “open season on the U.S. electorate,” he added that critics need to avoid launching a new era of McCarthyism, where anyone not born in the U.S. is eyed with suspicion.

But Weiner said politicians and party officials also have to do more to distance themselves from scenarios like the one documented by the Wall Street Journal if they want the public to have any confidence that they’re representing their best interests.

City News Service contributed to this report.

Source: Orange County Register

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