WASHINGTON — Michael Pillsbury, one of President Donald Trump's China advisors, publicly contradicted himself on whether he had received information on Hunter Biden during a visit to Beijing shortly after Trump called on China to investigate the son of former vice president Joe Biden.
"I got a quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese," Pillsbury was quoted as telling the London-based Financial Times.
Hours later, Pillsbury appeared on C-SPAN and denied having made the comment. "I haven't spoken to the Financial Times for a month," he said.
But Demetri Sevastopulo, the FT's Washington bureau chief, responded by making public on Twitter their Oct. 9 email exchange. It showed that Pillsbury had sent the journalist an email reading: "Actually I got a quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese."
Pillsbury, 74, gave The Washington Post an even different explanation later on Thursday, Oct. 10.
"Most everything I learned was already public or well-known," he said.
Pillsbury claimed he was told that money from the Bank of China went to Hunter Biden's firm, but that it was difficult to determine exactly how much. He said the Chinese were largely reticent to speak about Biden.
"They really, really didn't want to talk about it," he said.
Pillsbury said he spoke with Trump just before he went on his trip to China last month, but he said the president didn't ask him to raise the topic of Biden to Chinese officials. "I haven't reported back to him, no," he said.
The China expert said he'd never spoken with Trump about Hunter Biden but was aware of the president calling for the Chinese to investigate last week.
"What a wonderful, hypothetical question," he said, when asked whether he plans to report back to Trump. Pillsbury declined to say more, saying White House officials had asked him not to disclose his conversations with the president.
Chinese officials, Pillsbury said, also told him that Trump was more likely to win because of impeachment - and were deeply interested in the 2020 election.
Pillsbury regularly speaks with Trump, who calls him "Mr. Pillsbury" and tells others he is the world's leading expert on China.
The president has said without offering any evidence that the younger Biden received $1.5 billion from the Chinese government as a "payoff" to curry favor with the then-vice president.
Trump said last week that Chinese authorities should investigate, a statement that shocked many Republican lawmakers. Some have said they assumed the president was joking, but the president and top aides have not provided more clarity as to his intention.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said Pillsbury's comments are the latest example of a Trump associate "seeking dirt with which to smear the Biden family" in a foreign country.
"While the president's limited number of vocal defenders have tried claiming that his South Lawn statement asking China to investigate the Biden family somehow wasn't a 'real' request, Pillsbury's admission again lays bare that there is no depth to which Trump will not sink to avoid facing Joe Biden in next year's election," Bates said.
Like the president's own family members, the former vice president's son has been involved in business ventures in China. No evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of either Biden has been made public.
Pillsbury, a China specialist at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told C-SPAN that he had traveled to Beijing at the end of September and had met with unspecified "Chinese." Like many American scholars, the veteran analyst routinely meets with his counterparts at Chinese think tanks, some of which are affiliated with the government.
Pillsbury, a hard-liner on China policy who has not worked in government since the Reagan administration, has enjoyed a higher profile recently thanks to the president's endorsement. Trump once called him "probably the leading authority on China."
After declining to say during a separate appearance on Fox Business whether he had raised the subject of Hunter Biden with the Chinese at the president's request, Pillsbury told C-SPAN that he was not acting on White House orders.
"He didn't ask me to raise the issue," he said.
The dizzying turn of events comes as U.S. and Chinese negotiators resumed trade talks in Washington. The first such high-level encounter since July, the negotiations are aimed at producing a deal that would mark at least a cease-fire in the trade war that began last year.
The Pillsbury affair is just the latest in a recent flurry of developments surrounding the talks, which have been the subject of repeated rumors that have caused financial markets to swoon.
This article was written by Josh Dawsey and David J. Lynch, reporters for The Washington Post.