President-elect Donald Trump's phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen broke a decades-long U.S. policy of avoiding direct contact between the U.S. government and Taiwanese leaders. Trump supporters said his maverick foreign policy instincts prompted the call; detractors accused him of rashly provoking China (which doesn’t recognize the Taiwanese government, and considers the Island to be part of the mainland).
But there’s another possible explanation: Trump may have been persuaded by paid lobbyists working on behalf of Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan’s de-facto embassy in D.C. TECRO spends $170,000 a month on lobbying, according to a tally by Politco — and one of its most prominent lobbyists is former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, the only former GOP presidential nominee who supported Trump's candidacy without reservation.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Dole, who works for the D.C. lobbying firm Alston & Bird, personally helped set up the call with Taiwan's president. “It’s fair to say that we may have had some influence,” Dole said. Anonymous officials involved in the Trump transition confirmed that Dole had indeed arranged for Trump to speak with President Tsai Ing-wen.
Bob Dole and his firm have been at the center of a prolonged campaign to strengthen US-Taiwan ties. According to federal lobbying records, TECRO has been paying Alston & Bird a monthly retainer of between $20,000-$25,000 since 2003. In exchange, Dole and his firm have lobbied Congress to sell weapons to Taiwan, arranged trips for lawmakers to visit the island, and placed op-eds in newspapers — including a piece by Dole himself in the Wall Street Journal, calling for Taiwan to be given UN membership.
A recent letter outlining the firm’s relationship with TECRO, signed by Dole and filed March 18 2016 with the Foreign Agents Registration (FARA) Unit at the Justice department, says that the firm will help with “scheduling meetings with Republican Party officials and candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination and in advancing client's agenda on party-related issues.” Over the past year, Dole has also been lobbying to include Taiwan in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration’s signature trade deal — which Donald Trump has vowed to dismantle.
This is not the first time Dole has interceded on Taiwan’s behalf with the GOP leadership. In 2012, he repeatedly contacted the Mitt Romney campaign, helping to arrange a meeting between Romney's foreign policy team and the Taiwanese ambassador. In 2015 the Intercept revealed that lobbyists with Dole’s firm drafted a resolution for the Republican National Committee, calling on the White House to sell more weapons to the Taiwanese government.
That year, the Obama administration okayed nearly $2 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
A summary of Dole’s activity on behalf of Taiwan over the past year shows the former GOP candidate has arranged contacts between Taiwanese officials and a long list of powerful American political figures including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte, and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He also set up a meeting with Trump's pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, helped insert pro-Taiwan language into the latest Republican platform, and arranged for Taiwanese officials to visit the Republican National Convention, according to review of lobbying records by Politico.
Dole isn't the only big name lobbyist working for Taiwan: TECRO also pays former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt's firm a $25,000-a-month retainer.