Name a successful president who takes campaign assistance from a “frenemy” of the United States, pretends not to know what his vice president does and does not know, and radically alters foreign policy toward the nation that helped him get into the White House.
Raise your hand if you thought of Bill Clinton.
As bad as Donald Trump’s #FlynnGhazi and #RussiaGate scandals are, Clinton’s re-election in 1996 was marred by shockingly similar collusion with Chinese spies and agents. Unfortunately, Republican attempts to hold Clinton accountable at the time failed spectacularly because of arrogance, underestimating the White House and forgetting the long game.
Donald Trump is no “Slick Willy,” but if today’s Democrats aren’t careful, Trump could escape Russia-gate just as easily.
The similarities between Russia-gate and China-gate are uncanny given that the scandals are almost exactly 20 years apart. Feb. 14, 2017, the New York Times reported that Trump campaign staffers were in regular contact with Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign. Feb. 13, 1997, Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) broke a Washington Post story alleging similar malfeasance from Clinton and the Democrats in the 1996 campaign:
A Justice Department investigation into improper political fund-raising activities has uncovered evidence that representatives of the People’s Republic of China sought to direct contributions from foreign sources to the Democratic National Committee before the 1996 presidential campaign, officials familiar with the inquiry said.
The day the story broke, unlike Trump, Clinton kept his cool. His first comments on the Washington Post story were to call for an investigation, according to CNN:
“This is a serious set of questions raised here, and the first I knew about any of it was last evening,” Clinton told reporters. “They obviously have to be thoroughly investigated and I do not want to speculate or accuse anyone of anything. I know nothing about it other than what I heard last night.
“But obviously it would be a very serious matter for the United States if any country were to attempt to funnel funds to one of our parties for any reason whatever,” Clinton added.
Clinton appeared to let Republicans have their way, and hearings on campaign finance were headed up by Law & Order actor then-Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) in the House. While Republicans beat their chests and stunted in public hearings, Clinton privately covered his tracks and paid back his Chinese benefactors.
First the Democratic National Committee gave back over $2.4 million in questionable contributions before the congressional investigations were completed in 1998. Then, from 1997 to 1999, Clinton quietly lifted the ban on American companies selling satellite and nuclear technology to China, a move that helped the Chinese military jump ahead almost 20 years. Calls by the FBI to appoint an independent counsel to investigate China-gate were blocked by Attorney General Janet Reno.
Over the course of two years and several investigations, Republicans uncovered a cast of unscrupulous Chinese Bond villains to splash over the airwaves:
- John Huang: a businessman who raised over $3 million for the Democrats in the 1996 election, much of it from Chinese government-run businesses. He was rewarded with an unusually high security clearance and a position in the Commerce Department.
- Johnny Chung: a businessman in 1996 who took $366,000 directly from the head of Chinese Military Intelligence and funneled it to the DNC and the John Kerry Senate campaign.
- Charlie Trie: a restaurateur from Arkansas looking to cash in on his friendship with Clinton who took over $1 million from Chinese government-fronted companies and sent over $200,000 to the DNC.
You could easily switch Rex Tillerson, Paul Manafort or even Gen. Michael Flynn for any of this trio. Vice President Al Gore, like Mike Pence today, claimed to know nothing despite being at ground zero for much of the scandal. In 1996, Gore swore that he thought he was attending a “community outreach luncheon” at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. Yet somehow the DNC raised $65,000 from a bunch of monks who had taken a vow of poverty. In 1997, after being caught lying to the FBI, Gore used the “iced tea” defense. He claimed that he drank so much iced tea that he was always in the bathroom when illegal fundraisers were being discussed at the White House.
In the wake of such damning evidence and overwhelming public support for the investigations, why were the only indictments of fundraisers not in the White House? Why did China-gate backfire and propel Democrats to unprecedented wins in the 1998 midterms? Because Republicans were more interested in smearing Clinton than in protecting national security. Because Clinton is a better politician than Trump. Because Clinton wasn’t at war with his own national-security agencies. And ultimately because Republicans promised a knockout and delivered a nosebleed. However, there are lessons for today’s Democrats in the Republican failures from 20 years ago.
Democrats should be calling for an independent investigation into Russia’s influence on the Trump campaign and should use that as a litmus test for any future confirmation hearings. Also, Democrats need to get behind this story. The National Security Agency and CIA are strategically leaking information to weaken what is seen as a compromised presidency. All Democrats have to do is capitalize on the information.
Democrats don’t need to sell any wolf tickets; they’re being handed out for free. Trump has been in office only a month, and Russia-gate is a national-security issue, not a springboard for 2018 and 2020. It’s much easier to motivate calls to Congress when voters think they’re protecting America against corruption instead of setting up Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) or Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) for Iowa.
Trump doesn’t have the political capital or the loyalty within the national-security apparatus to cover himself the way Clinton did. It is also unlikely that he will get impeached. Nevertheless, Democrats, with some long-game planning, could hamstring his administration and translate their patriotic acts into local elections across the nation in 2017. Let this play out, strike when necessary and let Trump hang himself. Russia-gate is open, but Democrats would be wise not to rush through just yet.