Foreign Policy Blogs

China’s ZTE Hires Former Trump Aide to Lobby U.S. Government

Bryan Lanza (CNN via Media Matters).

Bryan Lanza (CNN via Media Matters).

Sanctioned Chinese telecommunications company ZTE has hired former Donald Trump campaign aide Bryan Lanza and his firm, Mercury Public Affairs, to lobby the U.S. government on its behalf. ZTE is paying Mercury $75,000 per month for its services through Washington DC law firm Hogan Lovells, according to a filing with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Lanza is a managing director with Mercuty’s DC office and “a leading Republican strategist with extensive experience in political campaigns, policy and media relations.”

The hire suspiciously coincides with Trump’s unexpected “flip-flop” on a U.S. components ban against the Chinese telecommunications giant for violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea. News of the hire further fuels suspicions that Trump may be making such decisions on the basis of his own and his associates’ business interests rather than on the basis of U.S. national security interests.

Shenzhen-based ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation中兴通讯股份有限公司 or 中兴通讯) has been noted for its close ties to the Chinese government and for the possibility that its smartphones and other devices might be used for surveillance or espionage. In 2016, Chinese-authored spyware was found on Chinese-made smartphones including phones manufactured by ZTE. Trump’s concessions to ZTE prompted “bipartisan rebuke” and accusations of “putting China first and letting sanction-breakers off the hook.”

ZTE's Shenzhen headquarters (ZTE)

ZTE’s Shenzhen headquarters (ZTE)

“Obviously the Chinese government and ZTE want something from the U.S. government,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, told Lachlan Markay at the Daily Beast. “One way of getting what they want is hiring well-connected former staffers [like Bryan Lanza] as lobbyists.” Fisher continued: “Foreign entities hiring politically-connected lobbyists who have just come through the revolving door is fairly standard practice…, but this administration presents all sorts of new opportunities for influence-peddling.”

“The hiring of Bryan Lanza, a former campaign consultant for Donald Trump shows how companies seek – and obtain – influence with the fickle U.S. president,” observes Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “The contract is for three months, but it already seems to have borne fruit, possibly thanks to Lanza’s reported close relationship with the White House.”

“The deal signed with Lanza echoes recent disclosures of influence-peddling associated with Trump’s lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen,” writes Oliver Willis at Shareblue. “What would have been a departure from the norm, even for Washington, is simply how things work under Trump and his cronies. And the sudden reversal on sanctions for ZTE shows they aren’t even trying to be subtle about it.”

Mercury Public Affairs has an extensive history of registered foreign lobbying work, as indicated by its numerous filings with the Justice Department as required under FARA. This includes current registered lobbying work by Bryan Lanza on behalf of Russian energy company EN+ Group, controlled by sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of both Russian president Vladimir Putin and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Lanza’s work for EN+ Group is aimed at gaining relief from U.S. sanctions, and appears to be within the law if not particularly respectable.

In October 2017, however, Mercury was identified as one of two unnamed firms (with Podesta Group) that performed unregistered lobbying work for pro-Russian interests in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury indictment of Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. Mercury’s failure to register this work as required under FARA could place the firm in significant legal jeopardy.

ZTE’s DC legal representative, Hogan Lovells, also has an extensive “China Desk,” a special “area of focus” for foreign clients dealing with inconvenient U.S. sanctions, and an eye on “the Chinese market” as a target for “robust growth” in 2018. Former Donald Trump lawyer Ty Cobb was a partner at Hogan Lovells until he left the firm to join the Trump legal team in July 2017. Perhaps Beijing and Donald Trump’s Washington aren’t so far apart after all.

Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington doesn’t seem to be panning out, as Sarah Westwood and Sara Murray observe at CNN regarding Bryan Lanza’s lobbying work for big-spending foreign interests that may be at odds with the national interests of the United States: “In fact, Trump has presided over the expansion of a new generation of influence peddlers who have used their actual or perceived proximity to the President to line their pockets.”

Trump’s concessions to ZTE suspiciously coincide also with recent news that the Chinese government will provide $500 million in financing for a Trump-branded resort in Indonesia and has granted Ivanka Trump new Chinese trademarks potentially worth millions of dollars. Under the Trump administration, even America’s national security seems to be for sale to the highest bidder.



Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades