Chinese Bank's $150,000 Trump Dinner Invite Draws Complaint

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(Bloomberg) -- China’s second-largest state-owned bank offered wealthy clients the opportunity to have dinner with the American president for $150,000 a ticket, spurring a complaint from Donald Trump’s re-election campaign to the U.S. Department of Justice.

A branch of China Construction Bank Corp. invited high-net-worth clients willing to pay the ticket price to a May 31 dinner in Dallas, according to an invitation seen by Bloomberg News and confirmed with bank staff. Chinese participants would have the opportunity to communicate with U.S. “tycoons,” take photos with Trump and get his autograph, according to the invitation.

While Trump was expected to host a $50,000-a-head fund-raising dinner with the Republican National Committee in Dallas that night, it’s illegal for U.S. political campaigns to accept donations from foreign nationals or from corporations. That means only the Chinese bank’s customers with U.S. passports would be eligible to attend.

Officials with Trump’s campaign and the RNC said they had no knowledge of the Chinese bank’s advertisement before Bloomberg News asked about it. The campaign alerted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office about the solicitation, said a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing a potential law enforcement matter.

Employees Marketed

China Construction Bank’s Shenzhen branch said organizers in China promoted the event to the branch and then some employees marketed it, adding that the outlet itself wasn’t involved. The bank will strengthen internal management and marketing oversight, it said in an emailed statement.

The bank earlier forwarded a statement from VVISA, a Shanghai-based travel agency, which said it assisted with other groups that initiated the offers to participate in the event.

The invitations were circulating in China even as Trump met with President Xi Jinping’s top economic envoy to discuss a resolution to the ongoing trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies. Some version of the solicitations included references to signs of progress in negotiations and ZTE Corp., the sanctioned Chinese telecommunications equipment maker promised a personal reprieve by Trump earlier this week.

Trade Frictions

“As Sino-U.S. trade frictions have eased recently, Chinese businessmen including representatives from ZTE were invited to Dallas to attend President Trump’s dinner, and thus discuss cooperation and development with U.S. political and business elites,” the invitation said. The Shenzhen branch later reissued the invitation Thursday to remove references to trade friction and ZTE.

Notably, the tickets advertised by the Chinese flier were three times more expensive than those selling to U.S. donors for Trump’s Dallas event. The fund-raiser was previously reported by the Dallas Morning News, which obtained U.S. invitations to the event.

“We do not accept foreign donations of any kind,” a Trump campaign official said in a statement, declining to be identified by name. “Since it has been brought to our attention, we have notified the appropriate authority about this unauthorized flier.”

Client Treat

Construction Bank’s solicitation was confirmed by two people at the bank who said the dinner was a treat for private banking clients of the Shenzhen branch, and that they’ve already received some queries from private and state businessmen. The deadline for the registration is May 25 and applicants must hold U.S. visas and go through a background screening process to show they don’t have U.S. criminal records.

The Shenzhen branch acquired the tickets from VVISA, according to a person familiar with the matter. Both the bank and the travel agency earn commissions from the sales, said the person, who asked not to be named discussing internal bank business.

VVISA said the invitations were initiated by a U.S. foundation and a Chinese entrepreneurs group and assisted by VVISA, with no relation to Construction Bank. The event is still proceeding and VVISA is cooperating with many institutions, it said in the statement, adding that participants are paying on their own.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board

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