Taiwan paid former US Senator Bob Dole to work behind the scenes on Trump-Tsai call

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole attends Memorial day services at the World War II Memorial in Washington on Nov 11, 2016.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole attends Memorial day services at the World War II Memorial in Washington on Nov 11, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Former Senator Bob Dole, acting as a foreign agent for the government of Taiwan, worked behind the scenes over the past six months to establish high-level contact between Taiwanese officials and President-elect Donald Trump's staff, an effort that culminated last week in an unorthodox telephone call between Trump and Taiwan's president.

Dole, a lobbyist with the Washington law firm Alston & Bird, coordinated with Trump's campaign and the transition team to set up a series of meetings between Trump's advisers and officials in Taiwan, according to disclosure documents filed last week with the Justice Department.

Dole also assisted in Taiwan's successful efforts to include language favourable to it in the Republican Party platform, according to the documents.

Dole's firm received US$140,000 from May to October for the work, according to the documents.

The documents suggest that Trump's decision to take a telephone call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, was less a ham-handed diplomatic gaffe and more the result of a well-orchestrated plan by Taiwan, one that sought to use the election of a new president to deepen its relationship with the United States - with an assist from a seasoned lobbyist well-versed in the machinery of Washington.

“They’re very optimistic,” Dole said of the Taiwanese in an interview Tuesday. “They see a new president, a Republican, and they’d like to develop a closer relationship.”

The United States’ one China policy is nearly four decades old, Dole said, referring to the policy established in 1979 that denies Taiwan official diplomatic recognition but maintains close contacts, promoting Taiwan’s democracy and selling it advanced military equipment.  

The phone call between Trump and Tsai was a striking break from nearly four decades of diplomatic practice and threatened to precipitate a major rift with China, which admonished Trump in a front-page editorial in the overseas edition of People’s Daily.  

The disclosure documents were submitted before the call took place and made no mention of it.

But Dole, 93, a former Senate majority leader from Kansas, said he had worked with transition officials to facilitate the conversation.  

“It’s fair to say that we had some influence,” he said. “When you represent a client and they make requests, you’re supposed to respond.”

Officials on Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment.  

The documents suggest that Dole helped the government of Taiwan establish early access to Trump’s inner circle during the campaign, when Dole worked to involve Trump’s aides in a US delegation to Taiwan and to facilitate a Taiwanese delegation to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.

The effort has continued in the weeks since the election.  

Dole, the only former Republican presidential nominee to endorse Trump, arranged a meeting between Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., whom Trump has chosen to be his attorney general, and Stanley Kao, Taiwan’s envoy to the United States, and convened a meeting between Taiwanese officials and Trump’s transition team, the documents say.  

Dole, who said he first took an interest in Taiwan as a senator when Congress was considering the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that established the current policy, has lobbied for the Taiwanese government for nearly two decades.

In a letter in January, Dole laid out the terms of his agreement to represent the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, Taiwan’s unofficial embassy, including a US$25,000 monthly retainer.

That letter and the document detailing Dole’s work for the Taiwanese were filed at the Justice Department, which requires foreign agents to register and detail their efforts at influencing the US government.

Among his duties, the letter said, were helping Taiwan achieve its “military goals” and obtain membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping 12-nation trade deal that Trump has promised to withdraw from.

Dole was also to arrange for Taiwanese officials to meet with members of Congress from both parties and arrange access to Republican presidential contenders and to the party’s national convention.  

The government of Taiwan has retained a powerful bipartisan constellation of former members of Congress to promote its interests in Washington. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., a former House majority leader, also signed a US$25,000-a-month contract to represent the Taipei office this year, as did Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., a former Senate majority leader, in 2015.

Trump’s transition team has sent mixed messages about the call with Tsai, whether it was meant as a mere gesture of goodwill or a provocation aimed at drawing Taiwan closer to the United States as a way of challenging China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence suggested in the days after the call that Trump had merely been affording a courtesy to another “democratically elected leader”.

But in a series of Twitter posts Sunday, Trump suggested a more confrontational motive, criticising China for unfair trade practices and aggressive military moves.  “Did China ask us if it was OK” to take such actions?, Trump asked rhetorically, appearing to counter suggestions that the United States must ask Beijing’s permission to communicate with Taiwan.  

Several senior advisers to Trump have long advocated more overt outreach efforts and stronger US support for Taiwan, arguing that it would help to counterbalance Beijing’s influence. Alexander Grey and Peter Navarro, Trump transition advisers, wrote an article last month in Foreign Policy branding the Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan “egregious” and calling for a comprehensive arms package for the Taiwanese.  

Edward J. Feulner, the former president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and a member of Trump’s transition team, has also long had an interest in Taiwan, travelling there often – most recently in October, when he met with Tsai.

Taiwan’s official Central News Agency said over the weekend that Feulner had played a crucial role in establishing channels of communication that brought about the call with Trump.  

The Heritage Foundation has pushed in recent years for closer ties with Taiwan, with its scholars urging the United States to allow US companies to help the Taiwanese build their own submarines and to sell them US-made F-16 fighter jets – moves that could alienate China.  

After the Trump-Tsai call last week, Dole said Feulner sent him a note “congratulating me on getting the call through.”

Correction note: An earlier version of the story said The Heritage Foundation has accepted donations from the Taiwan government. This is incorrect.