Huawei is hiring Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta as a consultant, according to two people familiar with the matter. Podesta will aim to help the controversial Chinese telecom giant warm relations with the Biden administration.
Podesta will work to advance a variety of the company’s goals in Washington, according to one of the people. He declined to comment. A spokesperson for Huawei also declined to comment.
Huawei faces a host of challenges in Washington. In February 2020, the Justice Department charged the company with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO — a key DOJ tool for going after organized crime. DOJ alleged that Huawei helped Iran’s authoritarian government build out its domestic surveillance capabilities and tried to secretly do business in North Korea. The Justice Department has also brought charges against the company’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. She was arrested in Canada, where she is fighting extradition to the U.S. Huawei and Meng maintain their innocence. Huawei has said the accusations are an effort to “irrevocably damage” its reputation and business, as CNBC has reported.
Huawei is not Podesta’s first major China client. Disclosure forms show that his former company also represented the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), which funds a host of activities in the U.S. The University of Texas at Austin in 2018 rejected a funding offer from the foundation because of concerns about its links to the Chinese Communist Party, as Inside Higher Ed has reported.
Podesta — a colorful K St. personality known for his loud ties and elaborate art and wine collection — previously helmed the Podesta Group, his eponymous lobbying shop. But in 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller scrutinized the firm for its work with Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chief Paul Manafort. Manafort’s team enlisted Podesta Group in its efforts to sanitize the reputation of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych.
Podesta was not charged with wrongdoing, but shut down his firm and stepped back from lobbying after Manafort’s indictment. He spent several years in the political wilderness, focused on selling art. In early July, he caught the attention of Washington with a splashy New York Times story revealing he wanted to re-enter the fray.
“I don’t want to recreate what I had, but I sort of miss working, and art alone doesn’t sustain me, because I love politics,” he told the Times.
Manafort has also tiptoed back into Washington. Earlier this week, a Daily Caller reporter tweeted a picture of Trump’s ex-campaign head — his signature pompadour faded to gray — dining at a downtown D.C. seafood restaurant. Manafort spent time in prison before Trump pardoned him.
Podesta is expected to soon pick up more clients. He has known President Joe Biden for decades and is friendly with a number of his advisers. Podesta also lives down the street from former President Barack Obama in the glitzy D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama. His brother John was a counselor for Obama as well as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
In addition to Podesta, Huawei recently hired several other representatives: the consulting firm of Lee Terry, a former Republican congressman from Nebraska; lawyer Stephen Binhak; Glenn LeMunyon, who was an aide to former House GOP Whip Tom DeLay; and the consulting firm J.S. Held. The company also retains white-shoe law firm Steptoe and Johnson, paying them $60,000 in the second quarter, according to a disclosure. And the firm has connections to power brokers throughout the nation’s capital. Christopher Fonzone, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, advised the company when he was a lawyer at the firm Sidley Austin. Fonzone told senators he did fewer than 10 hours of work for Huawei. The connection created challenges for his Senate confirmation, but he was still confirmed.