Biden Trade Nominee Faces Headwinds Over Consulting for China and 'Putin's Pipeline'

Joe Biden, Nelson Cunningham (Nelson Cunningham/Twitter)
January 17, 2024

President Joe Biden's pick for a top international trade post is the cofounder of a Beltway consulting firm that took millions from the companies behind "Putin's pipeline" and helped find investment opportunities for Chinese tycoons.

Biden last week nominated his former Senate aide, Nelson Cunningham, to serve as deputy trade representative, a post that handles international trade policy and foreign disputes. Cunningham is the cofounder of McLarty Associates, a "private sector diplomacy" firm that counsels international companies on trade issues.

Some of McLarty's clients put Cunningham at odds with the Biden administration.

In 2018, Cunningham advised Chinese executives on how to take advantage of U.S. tax incentives to invest in the United States. According to federal lobbying disclosures, a group of European companies behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline paid more than $4 million to McLarty's lobbying arm, McLarty Inbound. Glencore International, a scandal-plagued commodities firm, paid $1 million to McLarty Inbound to lobby the Office of the United States Trade Representative, where Cunningham may ultimately work, amid allegations of corruption.

Biden, along with many Republicans, opposed Nord Stream 2 on the grounds that it gave Russian dictator Vladimir Putin control of Europe's energy sources. And the Biden Justice Department last year charged Glencore in a "long-running bribery and price manipulation" scheme in Africa and South America, a case that the company settled for $1.1 billion.

Cunningham, who retired from McLarty Associates in August, was not registered as a lobbyist for those companies, though McLarty Associates' website says that senior members of the firm "are deeply involved in all our clients' strategies on a daily basis."

Cunningham's dovish position on China—and his firm's controversial client roster—have turned off a Republican who could block his confirmation.

"Cunningham has repeatedly cozied up to Communist China and has close connections with the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline," Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) told the Washington Free Beacon. "This raises the question of how many New Axis of Evil countries he has worked with and if he meets the requirements laid out for the position."

Blackburn—a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold Cunningham's confirmation hearing—says Cunningham "is extremely unqualified to serve in the position."

It's not the first time a Biden appointee's consulting work has posed conflict of interest concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and former White House press secretary Jen Psaki faced scrutiny over their work at WestExec Advisers, a consulting firm that, like McLarty Associates, represents multinational companies.

Biden's relationship with Cunningham stretches back 30 years, beginning when Cunningham served as Biden's general counsel at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cunningham, who has donated more than $125,000 to the DNC, hosted a campaign event for Biden in 2019. He was on Biden's short list to lead the Office of the United States Trade Representative, a job that ultimately went to Katherine Tai.

Even Democratic senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio) says he is "deeply skeptical" of Cunningham's work for multinational corporations and support for trade policies that have "failed American workers and devastated communities across my state." That's an apparent reference to Cunningham's Clinton administration role in developing the North American Free Trade Agreement. McLarty Associates' website referred to Cunningham as one of the "key architects" of the agreement. Biden, who voted for NAFTA, has since expressed regret over the deal.

In 2012, as a "trade policy surrogate" for the Obama-Biden campaign, Cunningham said it was "irresponsible" for then-Republican candidate Mitt Romney to call on China to "play by the rules" of international trade. Cunningham pitched the Chinese executives on "significant areas of opportunity" for investment in U.S. companies, according to a slide of his presentation posted on a McLarty Associates social media page.

Cunningham has maintained access to Chinese government officials. He discussed foreign investment with Chinese leaders in 2019, writing that "at a time of heightened trade tensions, [it is] important to keep dialog alive."

While McLarty Associates does not list any of its Chinese clients on its website, McLarty Inbound has lobbied for Fuyao Glass, a Chinese auto glass maker. The company hired McLarty Inbound shortly after the release of the documentary American Factory, which revealed the company's allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and its aggressive union-busting tactics. Fuyao paid $385,000 to McLarty to lobby on "regulatory issues" and U.S.-China trade relations, according to lobbying disclosures.

Cunningham and McLarty Associates did not respond to requests for comment and additional information about the firm's clients.