How Hà Nội Wins Friends and Influence

Earlier this month, the online journal the Rushford Report published an article exposing how the Vietnamese government is buying access and influence in Washington, DC. Trinh Nguyễn spoke with the reporter, Greg Rushford, about his findings.

Trinh: Hi Greg, thank you so much for joining me today.

Greg: Well hi yourself and thank you very much.

Trinh: Well Greg, your article is quite the read. It exposes how the leaders of the Communist Party in Việt Nam has been quietly buying influence to advance its foreign policy agenda in Washington, DC…and that this practice has been taking place for quite some time now. What does this actually entail?

Greg: Well, Hà Nội has figured out that in DC, money talks. We’re not talking illegal money or bribery or corruption. We’re talking about hiring well-connected lobby firms that have former Senior State Department officials who have insider’s knowledge to sell, advising the government on how to deal with the Obama White House and State Department and Pentagon. And we also have some influence with think tanks, including perhaps the most respected think tank in Washington, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it’s called CSIS. The Vietnamese government has sponsored a study by CSIS scholars and analysts without disclosing where the money comes from.

Trinh: And speaking of buying influence, one of the characters of your article is the influential think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies or CSIS as you just mentioned. In your article, you basically stated that the recent article, which is a major study, was very favorable of the Vietnamese government. What did you find out about this study?

Greg: The study was paid for by the Vietnamese government. What you can see from the study, is that the CSIS authors ducked issues that no independent analysts worthy of getting paid would do. Take the issue of human rights. It’s intellectually impossible for any anlyst of Việt Nam politics to avoid talking about the articles and the penal code that criminalize free speech and association. It’s impossible to talk about some of the role of the international covenents on civil rights and human rights that Việt Nam has signed but obviously not complied with. Those kinds of questions were just brushed over very lightly, not even mentioning the penal code.

It looks like that study was written to please or not unduly offend the government that paid for it. I mean the government of Việt Nam. To test the authors, I asked other questions about specific cases where there are Vietnamese people in prison today, just for exercising the rights of free speech or associating with Việt Tân, which is advocating for peaceable democracy reforms. And my questions were dodged. When you ask questions like that and an analyst doesn’t answer, it sets off alarms big time.

Trinh: I want to jump back a little bit to the lobby group. Which lobby group is this and who are the former State Department officials, White House officials that are working on this, for Việt Nam?

Greg: The lobby group is called the Podesta Group. Tt’s run by Anthony Podesta, a very influential member of the Democratic Party.

Trinh: A very well known name in Washington, DC circles.

Greg: Very well known. Tony’s brother John was Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton and had a senior White House position in the Obama White House. And is widely considered to be the man who will run Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The Podesta Group also has people who are very close to senior Republicans from Jeb Bush on down.

This has nothing to do with the lobbying, probably. Hà Nội would know that with this firm, you’re covering all political bases. The Podesta official who seems to be handling the account. He wouldn’t talk to me. But I've found new stories where he had talked about his representation of Việt Nam. His name is David Adams. He was Hillary Clinton’s Chief of Legislative Relations when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

Trinh: I see.

Greg: That means that david adams was helping formulate the current policy that the United States is following as it seeks to improve relations with vietnam. The sticking point is “demonstrated progress” that Washington will ask that Hà Nội demonstrated in order to join the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) trade deal and in order to purchase more US weapons.

David Adams helped craft that policy several years ago when he was in the State Department. So he knows exactly what the American officials are thinking because he was one of them. I’m not accusing him of selling classified information but of selling inside perspectives that I guess are worth every penny to Hà Nội , which is shelling out $30,000 USD every month.

Trinh: So basically, you’re saying Hà Nội has been buying good PR from the Podesta Group.

Greg: PR and access. Access to officials in the Pentagon, State Department, and Congress and insider’s advice on how to best approach these people.

Trinh: I see. I’ve lived in Washington for years and what you’re detailing is certainly unsavory but it’s not an uncommon practice. I mean, lobbyists are all over DC..and like you said, money talks. It’s a very cynical way of going about business in DC, unfortunately... But why is this different, this time? Why do you think this practice is so troubling?

Greg: Well, in this case, I believe it’s a question of good taste and bad taste. I’ve been watching lobbyists work their will in washingt for a long time. Many of them are admire ppl. They’re discrete. They just tell foreigners who don’t understand how washington works, “here’s what you might want to do.” It can be highly praise-worthy, in an intellietcual sense. But if you go to the website of the Podesta Group, these guys are selling influence. If you read them, they talk about how they can get to anybody in the press, in the white house, wherever. They can change public opinion like this or that.

Again, viewers can make up their own minds. I just thought this was over the top, even for Washington DC standards.  

Trinh: I see. And I have to say I really love the one line in your article. You essentially recounted the time when the vietnamese ambassador avoided making eye contact with a human rights activist and basically asserted that there were no political prisoners [in Việt Nam.] And your line, was my favorite in the piece. Asserting that Việt Nam has no political prison is like saying there’s no cheese in Paris.

Greg: I guess that turned out all right. I wasn’t sure it was a good line or not.

Trinh: No, it’s a great line. I think it goes to show the realities that the government is not acknowleding for the people.

Greg: Well, I think they have a problem. Because if they stopped imprisoning people for exercising their freedoms of association or speech, next thing you’re going to do is people are going to be criticizing corruption and the Communist party. And some of the people holding onto some of the money and power now are going to lose it. That’s why they’re doing this. They know they look bad. they’re not stupid. But they seem to feel that if they come clean, thye’re going to lose their privileges. It appears to me like another case of the classic political elite just desperate to hold onto power at any means.

Trinh: Thank you so much Greg. It was a really great time talking with you today.

Greg: Cheers.