Analysis: DOJ’s Claim That Steve Wynn Was A Chinese Agent Makes Sense

Written By Steve Friess on May 20, 2022

The news this week that the Justice Department is suing former Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn for failing to register as a foreign agent lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of China was one of those moments where you say, “Oh! Now it makes sense!”

By that, I refer to the bafflement that veteran Las Vegas gambling industry reporters like me felt over how Wynn could remain in the good graces of Beijing, whose support he required to build, expand and operate super-lucrative Macau casinos, while becoming a high-profile booster for an American president whose aimed to punish China for our lopsided trade deficit and other perceived injuries.

I’ve interviewed Wynn many times for a wide range of major publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, and BusinessWeek. I also spent two years covering China for USA Today and did a Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan specifically on the expansion of Vegas casino interests in China. The dance American business leaders like Wynn and Sheldon Adelson have had to do to win concessions and rake in obscene profits from Macau is a fixation of mine.

That’s why, upon reflection, the only way that could have happened was if Chinese President Xi Jinping found Wynn a useful vehicle for back-channel communications and efforts with that persistent China basher, Donald Trump. And unless Wynn was an actual diplomat in the employ of the State Department, he can’t do that. (He wasn’t.)

Wynn flatly denies allegations

Wynn was asked three times by Justice to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He refused in 2018, 2021 and last month.

The lawsuit alleges Wynn attempted to persuade Trump to cancel the visa of a Chinese businessman. The businessman sought asylum in the U.S., but the Chinese government wanted him returned for prosecution. The Trump administration didn’t cancel the visa.

Wynn was a high-profile supporter of Trump’s presidential run. He became the finance chair for the Republican National Committee after his election. He stepped down in 2018 at the same time he left his leadership roles and divested from Wynn Resorts. This came amid allegations of a lengthy pattern of sexual harassment involving female employees.

The company underwent a series of dramatic reforms to prove to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that it had rooted out the conditions that allowed Wynn’s alleged misbehavior. This was before the company was allowed to keep and open what became Encore Boston Harbor.

Following the scandal, the company changed the resort’s name from Wynn to Encore to further minimize its association with its founder.

Wynn’s fondness for doing business in China and Macau

Photo credit: Steve Friess

Wynn as RNC finance chair in the Trump era was always a curiosity given how extreme his deference to China had been during the Obama years. In one 2011 interview, Wynn ranted to me about Obama’s “protectionist” anti-business policies and how they could harm his operations.

Obama had slapped a big tariff on Chinese tires, was filing a variety of complaints with the World Trade Organization over other matters and frequently criticized Beijing for unfair trade practices and currency manipulation.

“I’m telling you, Steve, doing business in China is better than doing business here,” he groused, his raspy voice cracking as it did whenever he became agitated. “The Chinese government is better, more honest, more rational. I really mean that.”

I wasn’t the only one he gushed about Beijing to, either. In 2010, on the occasion of the opening of the $600 million Wynn Encore Macau, he told CNBC he was considering moving Wynn Resorts’ headquarters from Las Vegas to China. That never came to pass.

On a 2011 earnings call, Wynn waxed romantic about his interactions with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao:

“He said he hoped that the prosperity that was being enjoyed by the resort industry in Macau was being shared by the workforce. That was followed immediately by public comments by the (Macanese) chief executive. When our company hears those kinds of comments, we don’t wait for a week or a month. We respond instantly and we increased the line employees … by 6 percent.

“We were the first to do that not because we wanted to be first but because we respond directly to leadership given to us by the government. That’s an important part of our strategy, of our identity in that community. Our job is to constantly refresh the notion that we are humble, proud and grateful to be allowed to be part of that scene and the way to do that in China is to take good care of your employees.”

Wynn waxed whimsically about Chinese culture

Such statements were impossible to read as anything but aggressive brown-nosing. Did anyone think Wynn would be so grateful or laudatory if an American leader suggested he pay his employees more?

In 2015, as Macau gambling revenues plummeted because Beijing tightened travel rules to the special autonomous region, did he complain? Nah. He told CNBC that he was “more scared about the United States than I am about China. Everyone in China is pragmatic and practical.”

Wynn also told me more than once how unnecessary Western-style liberties are to the Chinese people. It’s not a part of the culture; they’re accustomed to thousands of years of subjugation; they’re now enjoying Western materialism and that’s really all that matters, right?

“I’ve met Chinese people by the thousands,” he once declared, evoking the image of an epic receiving line. “They’re happy.”

Wynn’s relationship with Donald Trump

The next year, Wynn was fully on board with a Republican presidential nominee who told a roaring rally crowd: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”

When he took office, Trump’s rhetoric became only more vicious. Wynn generally stopped being so effusive of the Chinese government in public, but the conversations he was having with his counterparts over there must’ve been pretty awkward.

It’s not a huge leap to imagine Wynn, attempting to protect billions in revenue and investment, assuring China that Trump was putting on a show for his America First base and that he could help them navigate these rocky waters.

The only real surprise here is that efforts to cancel that visa and deport the businessman sought by China failed. Perhaps Wynn misunderstood something about Trump: He actually meant what he was saying.

A lot of us did that, too.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayUSA and its related local sites. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected].

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