Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency seven years ago led to extensive revelations about foreign influence operations run by Russia.
Now, the U.S. government has unveiled an alleged influence operation involving Chinese interests that began shortly before the 2016 election and continued into the Trump transition period.
The Justice Department late Monday unsealed its indictment of Gal Luft, a dual Israeli and American citizen who ran a Maryland think tank. The indictment describes what it casts as an effort by Luft and a Chinese oil company representative to “recruit” a “former senior U.S. government official” and get him installed in a position of power in Trump’s orbit, even before his election.
Filed in November, the indictment accuses Luft of arms trafficking, lying to investigators and serving as an unregistered foreign agent.
The Chinese business executive and the former senior U.S. government official aren’t named in the indictment, but the context indicates they are Patrick Ho (identified as “CC-1”) and former CIA director James Woolsey (identified as “Individual-1”), respectively.
The indictment describes CC-1 as having been arrested in November 2017 and being a former Hong Kong home affairs secretary, both of which describe Ho. Ho was convicted in 2018 on unrelated charges and deported to Hong Kong in 2020.
Luft, in a video last week, identified the other man involved in the allegations against him as Woolsey, who served as CIA director under Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The indictment also lists Individual-1 as having joined Trump’s campaign around Sept. 12, 2016, which is when Woolsey signed on, according to contemporaneous reports. It identifies a think tank tie between Luft and Individual-1, which also points to Woolsey. And it cites Individual-1 appearing in public newspaper articles in ways that directly match Woolsey.
An attorney for Ho declined to comment for this report. Woolsey has not commented after repeated efforts to reach him through associates and his think tank. The Trump campaign hasn’t responded to a request for comment. Neither CC-1 nor Individual-1 is accused of wrongdoing in the indictment, which also invokes CC-1 but not Individual-1 in the alleged arms trafficking.
Luft, who was arrested in Cyprus in February but fled after being released on bail and remains a fugitive, didn’t respond to repeated messages. But he addressed the indictment before it was unsealed, denying any wrongdoing. He has recently claimed to have evidence implicating the Bidens in wrongdoing, prompting Republicans, who have named Luft as their “missing” whistleblower, to suggest without evidence that he is being targeted. The indictment, which makes no mention of allegations against the Bidens, was clearly the product of years of investigation.
Luft and Woolsey have ties dating back several years, with Luft serving as a senior adviser to a think tank co-founded by Woolsey called the U.S. Energy Security Council, according to the organization’s website and Luft’s past opinion writings.
The indictment states that in 2015, CC-1 agreed that a nongovernmental organization called CEFC, which the indictment alleges draws funding from the Chinese oil and gas conglomerate CEFC China Energy Company, would provide Luft’s own Maryland-based think tank annual payments of $350,000. The agreement allegedly created new ties between Luft’s think tank, Individual-1’s think tank, CEFC and CEFC China Energy. (The think tanks have not responded to requests for comment.)
Around this time, according to the indictment, Luft allegedly began sending Individual-1 information on the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure project. Luft also allegedly invited Individual-1 to a meeting with the chairman of CEFC China, writing in an email quoted in the indictment that the chairman had “very close relations with President Xi Jinping.”
On Sept. 12, 2016, Woolsey joined Trump’s campaign as a senior adviser. At this time, Luft emailed CC-1 about Individual-1 joining Trump’s campaign, saying, “We nailed it!” according to the indictment. (The indictment doesn’t cite Trump by name but describes a presidential candidate who was “elected President two months later.”)
The indictment then describes Luft and CC-1 discussing Individual-1 — while using a code name — and states that they had successfully “recruited” him “for a fee.” The two men talked about how he would form an apparent “channel.”
“All set. We agreed on 60 for phase I and he [i.e., Individual-1] won’t be taking a position w others,” the indictment quotes Luft as telling CC-1 around Sept. 29, 2016. “He is eager to launch the channel.”
“Our side is more than happy to have someone we know to be the channel with” Trump, CC-1 responded.
Luft responded that Individual-1 “needs to be better educated and versed in our narrative so the other side doesn’t shape his views.”
CC-1 later advised Luft that the chairman of CEFC China “agrees with the proposal for” Individual-1 and that the “[p]lan is for me to deal with” that individual. He said they would have Individual-1 travel to China after the presidential election “undercover.”
They also extensively discussed publishing articles in Chinese media featuring a “dialogue” with Individual-1, though his answers were actually “substantially” drafted by CC-1 and Luft, according to the indictment. A key theme of the discussions was a grand bargain in which the United States would accept China’s “political and social structure … in exchange for China’s commitment not to challenge the status quo in Asia.”
The indictment cites Individual-1 as offering a quote about China on or around Dec. 1 at a Belt and Road Forum in Washington. The quote directly matches a quote China Daily attributed to Woolsey at the forum on Dec. 1. It also cites Individual-1 talking about “world policeman fatigue,” which matches a quote Woolsey employed around this time.
Luft in early October allegedly informed CC-1 that Individual-1 was going “to lead the international security/china/iran policies for the actual [presidential] transition team!” CC-1 responded that he wanted the articles to provide “just enough” of a hint “to let ‘people’ know” that Individual-1 was “in the corridor of power to be.”
Around this time, Luft, according to the indictment, drew up a “Consulting Services Agreement,” which was due to pay Individual-1 $6,000 monthly — payments that the indictment said lasted into late 2017. Luft last week cited the indictment alleging $6,000 monthly payments to Woolsey.
After Trump was elected, Luft told CC-1 that Individual-1 was on Trump’s short list for secretary of defense, Homeland Security secretary and director of national intelligence. CC-1 responded that his “side” wanted “something with a ‘China’ profile,” with director of national intelligence being the first choice and defense secretary after that. Luft and Individual-1 then strategized about how to pitch Individual-1’s services to the incoming administration, according to the indictment.
Around this time came perhaps the most provocative disclosure in the indictment.
As Luft and CC-1 discussed Individual-1’s potential role in the Trump administration, CC-1 ultimately remarked that “may be you could reserve his ‘direct’ China link as the weapon of last resort.”
The indictment doesn’t provide detail on what he meant by that.
Such a job would apparently never come to fruition. Woolsey left Trump’s transition team in early January 2017, with a person close to him telling The Washington Post that he was unhappy about being excluded from discussions about intelligence matters.
Woolsey in 2017 said Trump transition adviser Michael Flynn, shortly after the 2016 election, offered to have him return as CIA director but that he turned it down. Woolsey said that he didn’t like the setup, which would have required him to report to Flynn, Trump’s soon-to-be national security adviser, and that he wasn’t sure Trump was aware of the offer. A lawyer for Flynn called Woolsey’s claims “false.”
Luft is accused of serving as an unregistered foreign agent. He claimed in the video last week that “nothing in the article represented Chinese interests.” (It’s not clear which of the articles that the indictment alleged he wrote with Individual-1 he was referring to.)
“Why am I being indicted … for ghostwriting an innocuous article for which I received no payment, let alone from a foreign government … ?” he said in the video.
Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a lawyer who works on Foreign Agent Registration Act issues, said neither CC-1 nor Individual-1 faces as much legal exposure as Luft but that CC-1 faces more than Individual-1.
“It is possible that Individual-1 was not aware that the consulting work that he was doing for the think tank was ultimately being done at the direction, control or request of the Chinese entity,” Rosenstein said. “Because FARA requires proof of willfulness in order to sustain a criminal charge, from the standpoint of Individual-1, if it’s true that he was not aware of the upstream relationship with China, that’s a valid defense. I think that’s not the same for CC-1.”
The indictment contains no allegations or suggestions that the Trump campaign knew what was happening.
But what it does spell out is that someone who might have been in line for a position of real power in American government was essentially being wrapped up in what the indictment casts as a foreign influence operation — this time connected not to Russia, but to China.