Bannon speaks to reporters after his arraignment (Craig Ruttle/AP)
When federal agents arrested former chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon off the coast of Connecticut on Aug. 20, he was relaxing on a 150-foot yacht belonging to a flashy Chinese billionaire whose efforts to obtain asylum in the United States have divided top allies of President Trump.
Most of the attention after Bannon’s arrest has been on the federal charges alleging that he fleeced donors to a nonprofit group that claimed it was privately building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But it has been Bannon’s partnership with Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, on whose yacht Bannon had told friends he had been living in recent months, that has come to dominate his post-White House career — a partnership that is now also under scrutiny. A company linked to both is a focus of a separate federal investigation, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.
Guo, who fled China after he was accused of bribery and other crimes there, forged a relationship with Bannon after he left the White House in 2017. About the same time, Guo began a vociferous campaign attacking corruption in Beijing and what he says is a politically motivated prosecution against him.
In the past several years, a company linked to the billionaire, who also goes by Miles Kwok and Miles Guo, has given Bannon a consulting contract. Guo has also publicly pledged to donate $100 million to a Bannon-led charity. Most recently, the month before Bannon’s arrest, Guo announced that Bannon would serve as chairman of a new social media company he was launching.
Bannon, in turn, has emerged as one of the biggest champions of Guo, who casts himself as an anti-communist dissident in dozens of fiery videos posted online. Even as other critics of the Chinese government have grown skeptical of Guo’s claims that he is a political victim of Beijing, Bannon has said Guo has valuable insider information that could help take down China’s Communist Party, or CCP, and says he has been prescient about China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its handling of the novel coronavirus.
“Miles Guo has been the toughest Chinese opponent the CCP has ever encountered,” Bannon said in a statement to The Washington Post. “He has been the world’s leading fighter exposing the lies, the infiltration, and the malevolence of the CCP.”
Bannon added that he thinks the United States owes Guo “a debt of gratitude for his relentless mission against the Chinese Communist Party — the existential threat against the United States.”
But there are now signs that federal investigators are scrutinizing Guo’s financial activities in the United States and GTV Media Group, a social media company that Guo said raised $300 million from investors, according to people familiar with the investigation.
Some of those investors now say they think they were defrauded by the company and have been interviewed repeatedly by the FBI in recent months, according to three people with knowledge of the case. The Wall Street Journal first reported the existence of the inquiry.
The FBI declined to comment.
In a statement, Guo said the company followed U.S. securities laws and was guided by legal counsel as it raised money. He said the “overwhelming majority of investors are fully satisfied” and alleged that the CCP had “proxies infiltrate the offering and file politically motivated complaints.”
Bannon, who until his arrest served as a director at the company, declined to comment on the investigation. A person close to him, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the probe, said he, too, views the allegations against GTV as being driven by the Chinese government, which he thinks sees the independent media enterprise as a threat.
Separately, Bannon has pleaded not guilty to the charges related to the wall charity. The person close to him said Bannon’s work with Guo had no connection to that effort.
Guo supporters protest outside federal court in New York after Bannon’s arraignment last month. (Kevin Hagen/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Meanwhile, another long-running federal investigation involving Guo is gaining steam. In that case, the billionaire has been described as the target of a failed attempt to lobby the Trump administration to extradite him to China, a complex campaign that allegedly involved two prominent GOP fundraisers, a former member of the Fugees hip-hop group and a fugitive Malaysian financier.
Late last month, a consultant pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an unregistered agent for China as part of the case. Prosecutors are also prepared to file charges against investor Elliott Broidy, a former top fundraiser for the Republican National Committee, accusing him of taking part in the effort, The Post has reported. They also might reach a plea deal with him, people familiar with the matter have said.
[Justice Department zeroing in on longtime GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy]
An attorney for Broidy declined to comment. Broidy has previously called claims about his role “a fabrication.”
The parallel cases spotlight how figures in the president’s circle have sought to influence the administration’s China policies on behalf of foreign interests.
Bannon’s alliance with Guo meshes with his long-standing nationalist message and hawkish views on China. But people familiar with his relationship with the billionaire said they also came to think that Bannon — one of the chief promoters of Trump’s “drain the swamp” message — was driven by the lucrative aspects of the partnership.
“Bannon didn’t care about clothing or appearance — but that’s small money,” said Sasha Gong, a Chinese American writer and journalist who briefly served on the board of an anti-Communist Party charity launched in 2018 by Bannon and Guo.
But, she added, “if you want to change the world, that kind of money, you have endless needs.”
Bannon, who said he parted ways with Gong after losing trust in her, said his partnership with Guo is driven by a strong belief that his work is essential.
'A pretty valuable hombre'
A real estate developer and investor, Guo for a time thrived in Communist China, at one point ranking as the country’s 73rd-richest person. He built one of the premier skyscrapers in Beijing, next to the Bird’s Nest stadium, entertaining the city’s business and political elite there.
He has acknowledged in videos he posted on YouTube that he maintained a relationship with officials in the state security apparatus. At one point, Guo said, he traveled to India on behalf of the Chinese government to convey messages to the Dalai Lama, who posed for a photo with Guo that he posted to social media.
Guo’s downfall came soon after President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive in 2014 netted one of Guo’s close allies, senior intelligence official Ma Jian, who in a 20-minute video released by the government confessed to taking millions in bribes from the developer and described an “alliance of shared interests” with him.
Guo denied the charges and fled China, resurfacing dramatically in 2017 in New York, settling in at a $67 million penthouse apartment at the Sherry-Netherland hotel overlooking Central Park.
From New York, he has used a YouTube channel to tell sensational tales of money, violence and sex among the Communist Party elite that he claimed to have gleaned from his time as an insider. Many of the allegations, often centered on Xi’s confidant and anti-corruption czar, Wang Qishan, cannot be substantiated.
“If they weren’t so corrupt, they wouldn’t be scared of me,” Guo told the New York Times in 2017 as he began to speak out.
Guo, who said he joined Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida in 2015, can be Trump-like in his boasts about his wealth and power to take down his enemies, said people who have encountered him.
[Trump turns Mar-a-Lago Club terrace into open-air situation room]
One guest who visited his New York penthouse and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting Guo’s ire said Guo served a rare tea he claimed was worth $1 million a kilogram and gave an impromptu fashion show in which he modeled bright red and yellow alligator-skin jackets. The centerpiece of Guo’s ornate living room, the person said, was a giant model of London’s Tower Bridge constructed out of Legos.
Guo at his New York apartment in November 2017. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
As Guo became more vocal, Interpol issued a “red notice” in April 2017 declaring him a fugitive wanted on charges of bribery, kidnapping, money laundering, fraud and rape and pressed to have him returned to Beijing.
Guo denied the charges. That September, he formally applied for asylum in the United States.
In a statement to The Post, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on Bannon or Guo other than to note Interpol’s filing of the notice against “the criminal suspect Guo Wengui.”
China made it clear to the United States that it wanted Guo turned over. People familiar with the efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal government discussions said top Chinese officials personally lobbied then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other U.S. officials.
Behind the scenes, the Chinese government was working other avenues, as well, according to court documents filed in connection with the guilty plea of consultant Nickie Mali Lum Davis.
In her guilty plea, Davis acknowledged that she met with a Chinese government minister to discuss Guo in May 2017. According to a charging document filed in her case, Davis admitted she aided and abetted the efforts of two others involved in the influence campaigns, identified only as Person A and Person B. People familiar with the matter identified them as former Fugees rapper Pras Michel and Broidy, then serving as deputy finance chairman of the RNC.
Michel has denied wrongdoing. His attorney has declined to comment.
According to court documents, Broidy allegedly lobbied to have Guo removed from the United States at the request of a Chinese government official and Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian financier who has since been indicted on separate charges of conspiring to launder money and bribe foreign officials.
As part of the effort, prosecutors say in court filings, the person identified as Broidy contacted several top Trump aides and enlisted RNC Finance Chairman Steve Wynn, who operated a casino in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macao.
In text messages quoted in court filings, Broidy described how Wynn assured him that he had taken the issue straight to Trump.
In a private meeting around June 2017, Wynn told Trump why Xi felt so strongly about the United States returning Guo to China, handing the president two pictures of Guo, The Post previously reported.
Reid Weingarten, an attorney for Wynn, has declined to comment but said his client has been cooperating with investigators.
Trump initially appeared persuaded, telling aides in an Oval Office meeting that he supported the plan, according to a former administration official familiar with his views.
But the Justice Department, the National Security Council and then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn did not think the move was appropriate, people familiar with the discussions said.
A White House spokesman referred questions about the episode to the NSC. An NSC spokesman declined to comment and referred questions to the Justice Department, which also declined to comment.
In a statement, Guo said he helped the FBI expose the scheme and called it “only the tip of a far-ranging campaign the CCP has undertaken utilizing corrupt lawyers, prominent U.S. businessmen, government officials, and so-called lobbyists and political consultants to influence the U.S. government at the highest levels to take action against me.”
The FBI declined to comment.
Bannon has told others that he personally shielded the billionaire in his role as chief White House strategist.
“I was the protector,” he told the Wire China in an interview conducted with the publication before his arrest. “When I was inside the White House, I took the files and put them in my office and said, ‘Whoever wants this guy, this guy is a pretty valuable hombre.’ ”
A shared ideology
Since his ouster from the White House in August 2017, Bannon has been focused intensely on what he describes as the rising threat from China.
Bannon told the Wire China that a visit to Beijing during the 2008 Olympics deeply shaped his view of the country. “It was very obvious that these guys want to be a hegemonic power,” he said. “They need total control.”
During his trip, Bannon said, he also noticed the Guo-constructed hotel across from the Olympic stadium. “Miles was the man,” Bannon said. “He was the Donald Trump of China at the time.”
By the fall of 2017, Bannon was lunching with Guo at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
Bannon has said in interviews that he began meeting frequently with Guo to discuss their shared dim views of the Chinese government. This year, he began featuring the billionaire regularly on his “War Room” podcast.
Their relationship, Guo said, was rooted in their shared ideology.
“While my pairing with Mr. Bannon may seem a bit odd, an enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he told The Post in his statement. “I believe he has been effective in raising America’s understanding of the severity of the CCP threat.”
Bannon’s financial relationship with Guo began about the same time. According to an internal memo obtained by The Post, sometime before the end of 2017, a company linked to Guo loaned Bannon $150,000.
A spokesman for Guo told the New York Times, which first reported the loan, that it related to a film project critical of the CCP. Guo told The Post it was part of a now-concluded consulting agreement.
[Bannon charged with defrauding donors in private effort to raise money for Trump’s border wall]
In 2018, Bannon invited Hudson Institute scholar Michael Pillsbury to dine with him and Guo in a suite at the Hay-Adams.
Over a feast of steak, lobster, crab and an array of desserts, Pillsbury, who shares Bannon’s hard-line views on China, said the two men worked to convince him that Guo had valuable information he could offer the United States and should be embraced by American scholars and advocates.
“Bannon wanted me to vouch for him to others,” Pillsbury said. “It’s as if he was obligated to Mr. Guo to deliver people who were influential.”
Pillsbury said he came away with the impression that Guo was a knowledgeable businessman but did not necessarily have access to internal secrets of the Chinese government. He said he later came to regret attending the meeting, especially after he was given a “friendly warning” by a Chinese Communist official during a visit to Beijing that the Chinese government had heard about the dinner.
“There’s a cost to poking around about Mr. Guo,” he said. “Whatever he is is complicated.”
In August 2018, Bannon signed a one-year deal to consult for Guo Media, owned by a company incorporated in Delaware, for $1 million. Bannon’s contract was first reported and posted online by Axios.
By then, Guo and Bannon both began appearing frequently on Guo Media’s G News website.
Bannon was also given an office at Guo Media’s New York headquarters, which was co-located with Guo’s offices for other business interests in the United States, Gong said in a deposition for a lawsuit related to a Guo business dispute.
Guo “pointed out an office . . . on the top floors. That was Mr. Bannon’s office,” said Gong, the former board member at Bannon and Guo’s charity.
Bannon also began flying frequently on Guo’s private plane. In a 2019 documentary, Bannon was shown aboard the jet flying to campaign events, where he endorsed and promoted Republican candidates in the midterm elections. (Guo said he “occasionally” invited Bannon to join him when they were traveling to a similar destination.)
At a news conference in November 2018, Bannon and Guo announced they were launching two charities that would investigate Chinese corruption and financially support victims of the regime.
Bannon would lead the nonprofit Rule of Law Society, they said, which would be backed by a $100 million donation from Guo. Bannon told the New York Times that he would take no pay.
Gong, who had interviewed Guo the previous year as a reporter for Voice of America, was invited to join the charity’s board the following year, she said.
But she said she was growing concerned that the Chinese businessman had not been honest about his personal and business history.
“I’m a China hawk, and my fear is that [Guo] will harm the entire hawk argument,” Gong said.
She said she got involved with the group to try to guide and protect Bannon from getting into trouble.
“Steve Bannon has a lot of influence in media and the Republican Party,” she said. “I thought it was my duty to keep reminding him what is wrong.”
Bannon said he came to believe Gong was not supportive of the protests in Hong Kong and was “troubled she lacked the sense of urgency” in taking on the Chinese Communist Party.
She remained on the board for only a few months before resigning in September 2019. In her deposition, Gong said that she had seen the group’s internal financial information and became concerned it was not being transparent with donors. “I realized whatever money they promised never exist,” she testified.
Guo said the organization was formed “to help Chinese people stand up to the criminal regime of the CCP and educate the Western world on how truly evil the CCP is.” He said that he has supported the project financially and remains committed to doing so.
Guo said Gong turned on him after he declined to give $5 million to help produce a documentary she was filming and called her complaints “a case of sour grapes.”
Gong disputes that, saying she never asked Guo for funding for her documentary, which cost less than $600,000 and is nearly complete.
'The only one'
Online, Guo’s influence was growing, particularly with Chinese dissidents and Chinese Americans appalled at the country’s crackdown on Hong Kong and China’s handling of the virus.
In April, he began soliciting funds for a new company called GTV Media, a social media platform that he said in online videos would be free from Chinese or American control and a safe place to invest should the Chinese currency collapse. Guo told The Post he is “advisor to and sponsor of” GTV, which his lawyer said is a new version of Guo Media.
Jiamei Lu, a Chinese American pastry chef and Web designer living in Hawaii, said she and her mother, visiting from China, became entranced as they watched Guo online.
“His word is very attractive,” Lu said. “He said he’s the only one who can save the world.”
Lu said she briefly got a job at GTV, working for one week as a Web designer before being terminated as a result of disputes with Guo. She went on to send a total of $40,000 of her mother’s pension savings from China to a Guo associate, thinking she was investing in the new company. She said she grew concerned when no one from the company countersigned a document she sent to reflect her investment.
She said she has been interviewed by the FBI and agents for the Securities and Exchange Commission three times since June and knows of others who have been in touch with U.S. investigators, as well.
Among them is real estate developer Gao Yuan, who said his father, a former developer in China who worships Guo as an anti-Communist Party figure, invested $1.1 million of their family savings into GTV. Gao said he was so concerned that he reached out to U.S. authorities.
Gao, speaking from Thailand, where he lives with his parents, said he “strongly objected and pleaded” with his father not to invest.
But his father, he said, has become a Guo devotee. “He can’t fall asleep without listening to Guo first,” he said of his father.
He said his father was impressed by Bannon’s involvement, too, which he said was the subject of “incessant advertising” on Guo’s videos. “My dad thought Bannon had an enormous influence on President Trump and his administration,” he said. “He was convinced that these guys basically had influence over all U.S. policy related to China.”
In a separate interview, Gao’s father, Gao Baolin, said he thinks his investment in GTV is money that was well spent. Guo “is the only one in the world who descended from heaven to eliminate the demon that is the party,” he said.
Guo said in his statement that all of the funds raised for the company are “intact,” adding that most of GTV’s investors are satisfied and that the company followed SEC rules.
He described Lu as a disgruntled former employee. She said her complaints were unrelated to her employment, noting that after it ended, she continued to volunteer for Guo and invested additional money.
Guo has touted Bannon’s role in GTV, saying in Chinese in a video posted online in July that the former Trump adviser had been elected chairman of the company. In the recording, filmed on the deck of his yacht, Guo is wearing a sharply tailored business suit and aviator sunglasses. Bannon can be seen lounging on a banquette behind him, wearing cargo shorts and a polo shirt, tapping on his phone and periodically tipping his head back to bask in the sunshine.
Guo told The Post that Bannon had been removed from his role as chairman of the board after his arrest and played no part in raising funds for the company.
However, the men’s partnership has continued. Bannon was released from custody last month on a $5 million bond while he awaits a trial scheduled for May.
On Tuesday, Guo appeared for nearly 30 minutes on Bannon’s podcast, broadcasting live from his living room to discuss their joint goal of overthrowing the Chinese government.
The men debuted a rock song targeting the Chinese regime, with the chorus: “Follow me, and I’mma set us free! Take! Down! The CCP!”
Bannon termed the new song “an incredible cultural assault on the Chinese Communist Party.” It featured, he explained to viewers, “the voice of the one and only, Miles Guo.”
Shih reported from Taipei. Carol D. Leonnig, Alice Crites, Felicia Sonmez and David A. Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.
Source: The Washington Post