Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate finance committee, has asked the Trump administration to make clear whether the president or his cabinet attempted to link the US-China trade negotiations to a request to find compromising information on former vice-president Joe Biden.
In a letter to several cabinet secretaries — including Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state — Mr Wyden said he was “deeply concerned” that recent comments by two of Donald Trump’s advisers suggested the president was attempting to connect his personal political interests with a trade deal.
Mr Wyden said he became concerned after Mike Pillsbury, an informal White House China adviser, told the Financial Times this month that he received details about Hunter Biden’s business activities in the country during a trip to Beijing. Mr Pillsbury’s remarks came after Mr Trump had urged Beijing to investigate Mr Biden, a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son Hunter.
The Oregon Democrat also expressed concern that Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser, refused to clarify whether the Trump administration had raised the issue of Joe Biden or his son’s activities in China at any time during the trade negotiations in two television interviews on CNN.
“There is every reason to believe that the administration is seeking to link advancement on a trade deal with advancement of its own domestic political agenda,” Mr Wyden wrote in the letter, which was also sent to Robert Lighthizer, US trade representative.
Earlier this month, Mr Trump publicly called on China to investigate the Bidens, in comments that came amid an impeachment investigation into whether he tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to help unearth dirt on Mr Biden and Hunter’s business activities in Ukraine.
After returning from a trip to China, Mr Pillsbury told Fox Business that he had raised the Biden issue during his visit. Asked by the FT if he had been successful, Mr Pillsbury said via email: “I got quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese.”
The following day, Mr Pillsbury told C-Span television that he had not talked to the FT in a month. He later denied having received any information on the Bidens, and said he had been joking. But he conceded that his comments to Fox Business had raised the possibility that he would be called to testify in the impeachment investigation being led by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Asked by the FT at the time whether his comments to Fox Business had opened him up to the possibility of a subpoena from the House committees, he said: “Yes, but I’m a good witness.”
Mr Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Asked if he was aware of any discussion of the Bidens during the China trade talks, Mr Navarro said “no”. He also told the FT that Mr Wyden had gone too far in insinuating that his refusal to answer the questions on CNN suggested that the Biden issue had been raised.
The White House and the US trade representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi