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There’s only one presidential candidate who we know accepts money from foreign sources

It’s Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump responds to questions during the final presidential debate on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

During the presidential debate Thursday, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden argued that their opponent accepted money from foreign sources. But only one candidate is actually known to have done that: Donald Trump.

While president, Trump has continued to own his business, and through his hotels, clubs, and golf courses he’s accepted millions of dollars in payment from foreign entities. Indeed, Trump made more than $200 million in income from his foreign business interests since 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Biden, meanwhile, insisted that “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life” — and as far as we know, that’s correct. Biden has indeed released many years of his tax returns and financial disclosure forms, and as he said, they show no sign of any foreign money going to Joe Biden. (Trump famously has refused to release his tax returns, even though he promised he would back during the 2016 campaign — the New York Times recently disclosed some of them.)

Now, Joe’s son Hunter is a different story. Hunter Biden has in fact been paid millions of dollars from foreign sources. But on the debate stage, Trump repeatedly and misleadingly tried to conflate Hunter Biden’s money and Joe Biden’s money. Often Trump would insist to Biden that “you” got certain payments, before then clarifying he meant “your family.”

Trump’s campaign has been trying desperately to prove that some of Hunter’s money went to Joe — most recently by citing suddenly disclosed emails from or about Hunter — but so far, they have not proven their case. The only candidate known to be taking in lots of money from foreign sources is Donald Trump.

Sorting out the various claims of foreign payments

The exact amount of money Trump is taking in from foreign sources is not known, because the Trump Organization is a private company.

The Center for Responsive Politics has calculated that he made $200 million in income from foreign business interests since 2016, citing tax forms and financial disclosure forms. But that number does not include money that foreign sources pay to Trump’s business interests in the United States. And there’s a lot of it. For instance, delegations from at least 33 foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kuwait, and Romania booked stays or held events at Trump’s Washington, DC, hotel.

That’s what’s happened since Trump was president, but of course he made lots of money from foreign interests before he was president as well. For instance, he sold a Florida property for the eyebrow-raising sum of $95 million to a Russian oligarch in 2008. He partnered with corrupt oligarchs in Azerbaijan to build a hotel in Baku. And he infamously tasked his lawyer Michael Cohen with trying to strike a deal for him to build a Trump Tower Moscow during the 2016 campaign, though the deal didn’t work out.

Joe Biden, by contrast, was in political office from the early 1970s through early 2017. After leaving office, in 2017 and 2018, he and his wife Jill made more than $15 million in 2017 and 2018 — mainly from speaking fees and book payments. But there’s no evidence he received any money from foreign sources.

So Trump’s scrutiny has instead fallen on Joe’s son Hunter, who indeed carried on some business transactions with foreigners that have been criticized. Specifically, Trump focused on payments from a few such foreign sources (though his train of thought was often tough to follow).

“I don’t make money from China. You do. I don’t make money from Ukraine. You do. I don’t make money from Russia. You made 3 1/2 million dollars, Joe,” Trump said. But none of that is true for Joe, it is only true for Hunter, and even there Trump is exaggerating what is known.

Elena Baturina, the wife of the late former mayor of Moscow, wired $3.5 million to a company associated with Hunter Biden and his business partners for consulting. But it is not clear how much of that money went to Hunter himself. Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company, also paid Hunter hundreds of thousands of dollars to be a board member, as was much discussed during the impeachment inquiry last year.

And when it comes to China, Trump cited a new purported email from one of Hunter’s business associates. “They even have a statement that we have to give 10 percent to the big man,” Trump said. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know. Maybe you’re not. But you’re the big man I think. Your son said we have to get 10 percent to the big man. Joe, what’s that all about? It’s terrible.”

Again, Trump is misdescribing this. There is an apparent email from one of Hunter’s business associates discussing a proposed equity split for a business venture with a Chinese energy tycoon. The associate (not Hunter) wrote “10 held by H for the big guy ?” Trump’s allies have claimed this is a suggestion that Hunter hold 10 percent of the business venture for his father. But there’s no evidence Joe knew about this, and a further email suggests that the proposal fell apart. (However, the Chinese energy tycoon’s associates did later send $5 million to an account held by Hunter, as Hunter tried to negotiate a gas deal for the Chinese company in Louisiana.)

“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden insisted. He responded by pointing out that Trump himself had a “secret bank account with China.” This did come to light in a New York Times report this week, but Trump has said that it was only set up to pay local taxes while he explored business opportunities that didn’t work out, and no evidence has emerged to disprove that claim.

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