Fact Check: Is Penn Biden Center "China-funded" as Donald Trump claims? (2023)

The discovery of more classified documents in President Joe Biden's possession has triggered scrutiny of why he held onto secret papers outside of the White House.

Donald Trump has joined criticism of the president, alleging among other claims that Chinese agents had even reviewed papers that were found at the Penn Biden Center, one of the locations where secret documents have been uncovered.

In a recent video, comparing the handover to the raid on his Mar-a-Lago compound in Florida, Donald Trump claimed the think tank has been funded by one of America's biggest global rivals.

Fact Check: Is Penn Biden Center "China-funded" as Donald Trump claims? (1)

The Claim

A tweet by Donald Trump Jr., posted on January 19, 2022, includes a video of Donald Trump during which the former president claims that the Penn Biden Center is "China-funded".

In the video, which has been viewed more than 164,000 times, Trump said: "At the very same moment my ultra-secure Mar-a-Lago home was raided by the FBI, Joe Biden was harboring classified documents in his China-funded Penn Center", Donald Trump said.

The Facts

Trump's claim appears to be based on a letter written by Rep. James Comer (R-KY), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Accountability.

In correspondence to UPenn sent on January 18, 2023, Comer states that after the Penn Biden Center was announced in 2017 "UPenn's donations originating from China more than tripled."

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That claim was based on another letter sent by Comer on January 27, 2021, that quoted the federal government's College Foreign Gift Reporting website, which records "contracts with and gifts from a foreign source that, alone or combined, are valued at $250,000 or more in a calendar year."

Comer's letter stated: "In the 37 months of available reporting prior to the announcement of the Biden Center, the University received about $21,187,333 from China.

"In contrast, in the 39 months of available reporting since the announcement of the Biden Center, the University received $72,274,675 from China—an increase of $51,087,342 in a similar time frame."

The figures quoted in Comer's report roughly match those found by Newsweek using the same database.

"Gifts" received in the 37 months between January 1, 2014, and February 1, 2017, originating from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong totaled $24,244,096, while in the 39 months between February 1, 2017, and May 1, 2020, the total received came to $77,375,918, an increase of $53,131,822. None of the payments were labeled a "Foreign government source".

Newsweek has contacted Comer's office for comment.

In a statement to Newsweek, a UPenn spokesman said they had "received the letter from Representative Comer and will respond in a timely manner."

"It is important to reiterate that the Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity," the spokesman added.

"In fact, the University has never solicited any gifts for the Center.

"Since its inception in 2017 there have been three unsolicited gifts (from two donors) which combined total $1,100. Both donors are Americans. One hundred percent of the budget for the Penn Biden Center comes from university funds.

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"Any foreign gifts received by the university are all properly reported to the U.S. Department of Education as required by Section 117 of the Higher Education Act.

"Penn is fully compliant with federal law regarding the reporting of foreign gifts and contracts."

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Nonetheless, the University of Pennsylvania has received donations from China which could, in theory, be used to pay for the Penn Biden Center.

However, what the data quoted by Comer doesn't explain is whether the funding received from China between 2017 and 2020 was restricted or not.

Donors who make contributions to a university can state whether the amount they provide is used for a specific purpose. In the case of UPenn, if the donor had not stated that the Penn Biden Center be a recipient the money would not go directly to it.

Without this additional information, we can't establish if the increase in funding following the opening of the Penn Biden Center would have benefited it.

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Furthermore, while the value of donations from China between 2017 and 2020 is not insubstantial, it is a fraction of UPenn's total revenues and gift endowment.

For example, in 2022, the university's total revenue and other support (without donor restriction funds) came to more than $14.4 billion, according to its own data.

By comparison, the contributions from China between February 2017 to March 2020 (using the figure that Representative Comer put forward) reach about 0.5 percent of that total. The university's endowment alone is more than $20.5 billion.

This is not to dismiss concerns regarding unfair financial practices and the influence donors may have. As mentioned, some of the donations could go toward the Penn Biden Center, which could mean it is (at least in part, within this scenario) Chinese-funded.

However, as mentioned, many university donations come with restrictions attached (almost half in 2022, UPenn reported), of which not all will be from China nor will all be spent on the Penn Biden Center.

One of the implications here is that Chinese donors may have been trying to influence the Bidens in some manner, connected to the possibility that the classified documents found at the president's university were related to Chinese intelligence or interests.

Comer stated this explicitly in his letter to the university, writing "...the Penn Biden Center appears to have acted as a foreign-sponsored source of income for much of a Biden Administration in-waiting."

"The American people deserve to know whether the Chinese Communist Party, through Chinese companies, influenced potential Biden Administration policies with large, anonymous donations to UPenn and the Penn Biden Center," he added.

Fact Check: Is Penn Biden Center "China-funded" as Donald Trump claims? (2)

Again, in a technical sense, since UPenn has received money from China (which may contribute toward the cost of running the Penn Biden Center), the Penn Biden Center may indeed be, in some way, "China-funded".

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The problem is we don't know if that's the case and Trump nor others have provided evidence on that point.

Therefore, from what we know about the number of donations that the university received from donors globally, the restrictions on donations, and the fraction that these donations make of UPenn's total revenue, it's misleading at this stage (without additional evidence) to conclude that the Penn Biden Center is, as Trump claims, truly "China-funded" or that this funding influenced the Biden administration.

Republicans, including Trump and Comer, are not the only critics of the president's handling of classified documents with Democratic Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) recently adding their concerns publicly.

Durbin called the situation "unacceptable" while Manchin said "it was irresponsible" and that Biden "should have a lot of regrets".

Newsweek has contacted the White House, the Penn Biden Center, and Donald Trump for comment.

The Ruling

Fact Check: Is Penn Biden Center "China-funded" as Donald Trump claims? (3)

Unverified.

Evidence shows the University of Pennsylvania has received donations from China. However, the claim that the Penn Biden Center is directly Chinese-funded is somewhat misleading. The Center is paid for by the university, of which funding from donors makes a fraction of total contributions, and donations from China are an even smaller fraction of that. Currently, there is no public evidence that the Penn Biden Center is directly funded by donations from China to the University of Pennsylvania. Therefore, at present, we rate this claim as Unverified.

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