President Donald Trump on Thursday called on China to look into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, on the eve of restarted trade talks between the two economic superpowers.
Biden's campaign shot back at Trump, saying he was dishing out a "grotesque choice of lies over truth and self over the country."
Trump, speaking outside the White House before departing for Florida, mentioned China after pressing his call for Ukraine to launch a probe into Biden and his son — a request he made in a July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president that led Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry.
"If they were honest about it, they would start a major investigation into the Bidens," Trump said when asked what he wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to do about the former veep and his son.
"They should investigate the Bidens," Trump said. "Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine."
Trump said that "I haven't" asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to do so, "but it's certainly something we should start thinking about."
It wasn't immediately clear what Trump believes "happened in China" related to the Bidens. The New Yorker delved into some of Hunter Biden's Chinese connections in a lengthy piece in July.
Trump pulled China into the brewing controversy just one week before a Chinese delegation was set to arrive in Washington to resume protracted trade negotiations. Administration officials have for many months signaled optimism about reaching a sweeping deal with China that addresses issues including trade deficits and intellectual property theft, and Trump told the U.N. General Assembly last week that he will not accept a "bad deal" with China.
"I have a lot of options on China, but if they don't do what we want, we have tremendous power," Trump said of the U.S.' stance in the talks before he was asked about the Bidens.
Asked why it was proper for the president to say China should investigate Biden at a time he's negotiating an enormous trade deal with the Chinese, a White House spokesman said: "No comment," CNBC's Eamon Javers tweeted.
Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement that Trump's comments on China are "this election's equivalent of his infamous 'Russia, if you're listening' moment from 2016 — a grotesque choice of lies over truth and self over the country."
"Now, with his administration in free-fall, Donald Trump is flailing and melting down on national television, desperately clutching for conspiracy theories that have been debunked and dismissed by independent, credible news organizations," Bedingfield said. "It could not be more transparent: Donald Trump is terrified that Joe Biden will beat him like a drum."
House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, last week announced a formal impeachment inquiry based on a whistleblower complaint raising alarms about Trump's phone call with Zelensky. In that call, Trump asked if Ukraine could "look into" unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing against Biden and his son.
"There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great," Trump said, according to a memorandum of the call released last week. "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it, It sounds horrible to me."
Democrats are looking into Trump's apparent request for a foreign government to investigate Biden, who is currently the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary. Many Democrats have also questioned the Trump administration's decision to delay hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, without providing a clear explanation at the time.
The White House released the five-page memo following a slew of media reports about the whistleblower complaint, which accused Trump of "using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election."
Trump, his allies and his personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have raised suspicions about Hunter Biden's employment on the board of Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma Holdings while his father was Barack Obama's vice president. They suggest that the elder Biden improperly pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor there out of concern that he would investigate the company.
No clear evidence exists that Biden's actions as vice president were intended to help his son; many Western leaders, in fact, had called on Ukraine to fire that prosecutor over allegations of corruption. Hunter Biden has not been accused of illegal wrongdoing related to his work with the company.
Asked about Trump's comments on China, Giuliani told The Washington Post: "I see that as exactly what a president should do."
"I'm not saying Trump never did anything wrong," he added, according to the Post, "but there are other people who did things wrong, too."
A spokeswoman for Giuliani did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment. Spokespersons for Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., did not immediately provide comment on Trump's remarks.
Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns tore into Trump on MSNBC after hearing his comments. He said Trump is "calling on one of our great rivals in the world, the Chinese regime, to investigate his political opponent."
"It's wrong to do that. It's legally and morally wrong," he said.
House Democrats, meanwhile, pushed ahead with their impeachment inquiry Thursday by taking a deposition former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
Volker, who Giuliani claims had texted him to try and set up meetings with Ukraine officials, resigned Friday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who admitted this week that he was on the call with Trump and Zelensky, sent a heated message to Democratic committee leaders, saying they're attempting to "intimidate, bully, & treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State."
Those panel leaders said in response that Pompeo himself was a "fact witness" in the impeachment inquiry, and added that trying to prevent witnesses from talking to Congress constituted "evidence of obstruction."