This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Tao Liu’s criminal odyssey took him from money laundering in Mexico to a massive scam in China to Trump’s exclusive New Jersey golf club. Investigators believed he may have infiltrated U.S. politics as part of a Chinese intelligence operation.
In July 2018, President Donald Trump met at his New Jersey golf club with a Chinese businessman who should have never gotten anywhere near the most powerful man in the world.
Tao Liu had recently rented a luxurious apartment in Trump Tower in New York and boasted of joining the exclusive Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
But Liu was also a fugitive from Chinese justice. Media reports published overseas three years before the meeting had described him as the mastermind of a conspiracy that defrauded thousands of investors. He had ties to Chinese and Latin American organized crime. Perhaps most worrisome, the FBI was monitoring him because of suspicions that he was working with Chinese spies on a covert operation to buy access to U.S. political figures.
Yet there he sat with Trump at a table covered with sandwiches and soft drinks, the tall windows behind them looking onto a green landscape.
A longtime Trump associate who accompanied Liu was vague about what was discussed, telling ProPublica that they talked about the golf club, among other things.
“He was a climber,” said the associate, Joseph Cinque. “He wanted to meet Trump. He wanted to meet high rollers, people of importance.”
Documented by photos and interviews, the previously unreported sit-down reveals the workings of a Chinese underworld where crime, business, politics and espionage blur together. It also raises new questions about whether the Trump administration weakened the government’s system for protecting the president against national security risks.
For years, Liu had caromed around the globe a step ahead of the law. He changed names, homes and scams the way most people change shoes. In Mexico, he befriended a Chinese American gangster named Xizhi Li, aiding Li’s rise as a top cartel money launderer, according to prosecution documents and interviews with former national security officials.
“I’ve been doing illegal business for over 10 years,” Liu said in a conversation recorded by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2020. “Which country haven’t I done it in?”
Liu surfaced in the U.S. political scene after Trump took office. In early 2018, he launched a high-rolling quest for influence in New York. He courted political figures at gatherings fueled by Taittinger champagne and Macanudo cigars, at meals in Michelin-starred restaurants and in offices in Rockefeller Center. He may have made at least one illegal donation to the GOP, according to interviews.
By the summer, Liu had achieved his fervent goal of meeting Trump. Two months later, he met the president again at Bedminster.
On both occasions, Liu apparently found a loophole in a phalanx of defenses designed to protect the president. The Secret Service screens all presidential visitors on official business, subjecting foreigners to intense scrutiny. In addition to their top priority of detecting physical threats, agents check databases for people with ties to espionage or crime who could pose a risk to national security or a president’s reputation.
Asked about Liu’s encounters with the president, the Secret Service’s chief of communications, Anthony Guglielmi, said, “There were no protective or safety concerns associated with these dates. The Bedminster Club is a private facility, and you will have to refer to organizers when it comes to who may have been allowed access to their facilities.”
The Secret Service does not have a record of Liu meeting Trump on the president’s official schedule, a Secret Service official said...Continue Reading