In the 21st century, even spies have a social media presence, and while Christine Fang has not been heard from or seen since she fled the United States more than five years ago, the Chinese national still keeps her Facebook account active. Fang made two posts in November. The first, a candid photo of her face in shadow and light. The second, a picture of the inside of the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, perfectly capturing the “Apotheosis of Washington.”
Painted by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865, the fresco depicts George Washington rising into the heavens and is immediately familiar to every member of Congress. This includes Rep. Eric Swalwell, but unlike the other members of Congress, the California Democrat is also very familiar with Fang.
The lissome Chinese spy cultivated relationships, some of them apparently sexual, with several local and national politicians and, if anything, her picture now reminds Swalwell not of glory but of his current hellish controversy.
Swalwell won’t say whether his relationship with the spy included physical intimacy or disclose much about their shared past. The normally chatty congressman won’t say much of anything. When confronted by a reporter after a jog Thursday morning, the sweaty former presidential candidate kept his head down as he hustled up the steps of his Washington, D.C., home. He hasn’t been able to run as easily away from the controversy.
After Axios broke the Fang story on Dec. 8, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quickly labeled Swalwell, who eagerly sought the spotlight during the impeachment of President Trump, “a national security threat.” The rest of the caucus has followed suit, with GOP leaders sending a letter this week to Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding that she remove him from his post on the House Intelligence Committee.
But even if he is removed, which seems unlikely, Republicans say the saga calls into question not just the credibility of Swalwell but the judgment of Pelosi. It is the perfect curtain raiser for their coming argument in the Joe Biden era that Democrats don’t take threats from China seriously. It’s a story too tempting to pass up. It reads a little like a spy novel because, well, it involves a spy. An attractive one.
Fang went by Christine in the U.S., enrolling in early 2011 at California State University, East Bay, and quickly took an interest in Bay Area politicians. By 2014, according to Axios, Fang had developed close ties to Swalwell, then a little-known Dublin City Council member. She showed up at events. She bundled contributions for him, connecting deep-pocketed donors with his congressional election campaign. She placed an intern in his office. It was the long game, one that counter-intelligence experts warn China is so good at playing.
Swalwell was an obvious mark. In 2012, he had risen from relative obscurity, defeating an octogenarian Democratic incumbent who had represented the Northern California district since before Swalwell as born. In some quarters, and certainly in his own mind, Swalwell was seen as a young rising star in Democratic politics. But in his second term in office, U.S. intelligence took notice of something else. According to Axios, it gave Swalwell a “defensive briefing” about Fang.
Swalwell reportedly cut off ties. Fang left the country, suddenly, in mid-2015. The same year, somewhat unexpectedly given his junior status, Pelosi named Swalwell to the House Intelligence Committee, a plum and important appointment given the committee’s role overseeing the nation’s intelligence community, including the CIA.
While his office refused to comment for the Axios story, the congressman insisted he was innocent of any wrongdoing in a brief interview with Politico. He suggested the story was a hit job from a vindictive Trump White House: “I’ve been a critic of the president. I’ve spoken out against him. I was on both committees that worked to impeach him. The timing feels like that should be looked at.”
He said that he cooperated with the FBI and that “if intelligence officials are trying to weaponize someone’s cooperation, they are essentially seeking to do what this person was not able to do, which is to try and discredit someone.” Swalwell also predicted that he wouldn’t lose his seat, saying “this goes back to the beginning of the last decade, and it’s something that congressional leadership knew about.”
Swalwell hasn’t elaborated about the nature of his relationship with Fang, and his office continues to stonewall media inquiries. RealClearPolitics’ calls to his office were unreturned. But two Republicans on the Intelligence Committee separately told RCP they don’t want Swalwell anywhere near state secrets.
Sitting on the committee makes members of Congress even more of a target. This changed the habits of Rep. Rick Crawford. After joining the panel, the Arkansas Republican says he has severely limited the number of meetings he takes with representatives from foreign countries, keeps a closer eye on who comes into contact with aides, and regularly has Capitol Police sweep his office for bugs. And with good reason: Earlier this year, National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe warned Congress that as many as 50 members have likely been targeted by foreign influence.
Crawford’s reaction to the Swalwell news? “Quite frankly, I am not even remotely comfortable with him in the room,” he told RCP, given the sensitive nature of the material the committee oversees.
Crawford doesn’t make much of his colleague’s insistence that he is working with the authorities: “It's a redirect. Nobody's trying to suggest that he's not cooperating. But being cooperative doesn't change the fact that you're compromised.” What’s more, he added, Swalwell could still be a liability given that “we don't know the extent to which their relationship might have put him in a position to be blackmailed.”
Another colleague who doesn’t make much of Swalwell’s cooperation is Rep. Elise Stefanik. The New York Republican told RCP that “Swalwell should step down from the House Intelligence Committee and appear before the House Ethics Committee.” So far that seems unlikely, but Stefanik notes that Pelosi appointed Swalwell and Pelosi can boot Swalwell. She wants to know why the Democratic speaker even entrusted him with the position given that “this is not a recent infiltration — this goes back to when he was initially running for office when this Communist Chinese spy infiltrated his campaign.”
Crawford and Stefanik and the rest of House GOP caucus are likely to be disappointed. Asked about the Axios story last week, Pelosi responded, “I don’t have any concerns about Mr. Swalwell.” At the same time, many other Republicans will be delighted.
After listening to Swalwell lambast Trump for his alleged collusion with Russia only a few years after coming in direct contact with a Chinese agent, they are ready to turn the tables. If he stays on the Intelligence Committee, the GOP stands ready to make him a poster boy. “The situation with Swalwell, just like the situation with Hunter Biden, ties together the biggest weakness Democrats have: That they’re soft on China,” a former White House official said. “This is going to be an ongoing issue for Democrats.”