When a for­eign ad­ver­sary med­dled in an elec­tion

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - BY­RON YORK By­ron York is chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner.

In the 1990s, a hos­tile for­eign power med­dled in our pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. There were se­ri­ous ques­tions about whether one party’s can­di­date — the ben­e­fi­ciary — was com­plicit in the med­dling, or at least looked the other way while it was go­ing on. The can­di­date fiercely re­sisted the ap­point­ment of a spe­cial prose­cu­tor, then known as an in­de­pen­dent coun­sel, to in­ves­ti­gate. Fi­nally, amid only mod­er­ate me­dia in­ter­est and public con­cern, it all faded away.

The coun­try do­ing the med­dling, of course, was China, and the pres­i­den- tial can­di­date was Bill Clin­ton, who was al­ready in the White House and seek­ing re-elec­tion in 1996.

Look­ing back on press ac­counts from the era, it’s strik­ing how brazen a num­ber of the play­ers were as they went about the task of fun­nel­ing il­le­gal for­eign dona­tions to the Clin­ton cam­paign and the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. The names have been mostly for­got­ten now — Char­lie Trie, John Huang, Johnny Chung — but the record re­mains.

Chung, for ex­am­ple, who was born in Tai­wan and be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen, was a pro­lific Demo­cratic fundraiser. Be­tween 1994 and 1996, he gave $366,000 to the DNC and vis­ited the Clin­ton White House more than 50 times.

In 1995, Chung gave a $50,000 check to first lady Hil­lary Clin­ton’s chief of staff at an event on the White House grounds. His mem­o­rable ex­pla­na­tion: “I see the White House is like a sub­way — you have to put in coins to open the gates.”

In May 1999, Chung tes­ti­fied be­fore the House Gov­ern­ment Over­sight Com­mit­tee. He said that in 1996, dur­ing the Clin­ton re-elec­tion cam­paign, he met with the head of Chi­nese mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence in the base­ment of a restau­rant in Hong Kong. “We re­ally like your pres­i­dent. We hope to see him re-elected,” the Chi­nese spy, Gen. Ji Shengde, told Chung, ac­cord­ing to Chung’s tes­ti­mony. Gen. Ji con­tin­ued: “I will give you 300,000 U.S. dol­lars. You can give it to the pres­i­dent and the Demo­cratic Party.”

“Chung’s tes­ti­mony has provided in­ves­ti­ga­tors the first di­rect link be­tween a se­nior Chi­nese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial and il­licit for­eign con­tri­bu­tions that were fun­neled into Clin­ton’s 1996 re-elec­tion ef­fort,” the Los An­ge­les Times re­ported. “It is the strong­est ev­i­dence — in two years of fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion — that the high­est lev­els of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment sought to in­flu­ence the U.S. elec­tion process.”

In the great tra­di­tion of shady op­er­a­tors, Chung ended up tak­ing a lot of the money for him­self. But some of the cash from the head of Chi­nese mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence — that is, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army — made its way into the Clin­ton re-elec­tion cam­paign and other Demo­cratic ef­forts.

Ear­lier, Chung had tes­ti­fied be­fore a grand jury that he had also con­trib­uted money that came from another of­fi­cer in the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army and from the son of China’s top mil­i­tar y com­man­der. Chung pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax eva­sion and con­spir­acy in con­nec­tion with some of his il­le­gal con­tri­bu­tions. He was sen­tenced to pro­ba­tion.

Then there was Char­lie Trie, who raised $1.2 mil­lion in for­eign money for the Clin­ton le­gal de­fense fund and the DNC. In March 1996, Trie dropped off a do­na­tion of $460,000 at the Wash­ing­ton of­fices of the de­fense fund, with some of the money in se­quen­tially num­bered money or­ders made out in the same hand­writ­ing. He vis­ited the White House 22 times. He pleaded guilty to vi­o­lat­ing fed­eral elec­tion laws and was sen­tenced to pro­ba­tion.

There was also John Huang, the Demo­cratic fundraiser who raised more than $1.5 mil­lion from il­le­gal for­eign sources. He vis­ited the White House 78 times. Huang was an agent for James Ri­ady, an In­done­sian busi­ness­man with ex­ten­sive ties to China. The Se­nate Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee found that Ri­ady had “a long-term re­la­tion­ship with a Chi­nese in­tel­li­gence agency.” He pleaded guilty to cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tions and was sen­tenced to pro­ba­tion, plus a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar fine.

As the news came out in the year af­ter the elec­tion — with Clin­ton safely back in the White House — there were calls for an in­de­pen­dent coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate. (The old in­de­pen­dent coun­sel law was still in ef­fect then.) Then-at­tor­ney gen­eral Janet Reno stead­fastly re­fused. The Jus­tice De­part­ment daw­dled for months, and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion never reached the level it would have reached had an in­de­pen­dent coun­sel been ap­pointed. Repub­li­cans com­plained and com­plained, but Reno would not budge.

The scan­dal was news at the time; in­deed, some print out­lets, like the Los An­ge­les Times, led the way in un­cov­er­ing it. The story re­ceived far less cov­er­age on tele­vi­sion, where sev­eral news out­lets ap­peared dis­tinctly un­in­ter­ested. Over­all, it would prob­a­bly be fair to call the cov­er­age mod­er­ate-to-re­strained.

The rhetoric was re­strained, too. To use one mea­sure, it did not lead to wide­spread use of the word “trea­son” in the public dis­cus­sion of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton.

There is sim­ply no com­par­i­son be­tween the po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion about the Clin­ton for­eign in­flu­ence scan­dal in the 1990s and to­day’s con­ver­sa­tion about the Trump-Rus­sia af­fair. Of course, the cir­cum­stances and facts are dif­fer­ent, but it seems rea­son­able to say that for what­ever rea­son, Wash­ing­ton is far more up­set about Rus­sia’s at­tempt to in­flu­ence the elec­tion in 2016 than it was about China’s at­tempt to do the same 20 years ear­lier.

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