Politics & Policy

Not All Foreign-Influence Scandals Are Created Equal

President Bill Clinton with Al Gore at the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago (Reuters photo: Win McNamee)
Two decades ago, the media weren’t obsessed with Chinese interference in a presidential election.

This summer we mark the 20th anniversary of a major investigation by Congress of attempts by a hostile foreign power to influence an American presidential election.

I’m glad the news media is pursuing the Trump–Russia scandal, but let’s not forget the differences between how they are covering Russia compared with how they reported a similar story — this one involving Communist China — that developed during Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. The Washington Post reported in 1998 that “evidence gathered in federal surveillance intercepts has indicated that the Chinese government planned to increase China’s influence in the U.S. political process in 1996.”

Many people still believe that a major cover-up of that scandal worked — in part because the media expressed skepticism and devoted only a fraction of resources they are spending on the Trump–Russia story. Network reporters expressed outright skepticism of the story, with many openly criticizing the late senator Fred Thompson, the chair of the Senate investigating committee, for wasting time and money. On June 17, 1997, Katie Couric, then the Today co-anchor, asked the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward about the story: “Are members of the media, do you think, Bob, too scandal-obsessed, looking for something at every corner?”

According to an analysis by the Media Research Center, the news coverage of the congressional hearings on the China scandal in the summer of 1997 were dwarfed by reports on the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace and the death of Princess Diana.

The Chinese fundraising scandal involving DNC finance vice chairman John Huang first came to light in the final weeks of the 1996 presidential campaign. A former Commerce Department official, Huang was a top fundraiser who scooped up suspect foreign cash for Team Clinton.

A 1998 Senate Government Affairs Committee report on the scandal found “strong circumstantial evidence” that a great deal of foreign money had illegally entered the country in an attempt to influence the 1996 election. The DNC was forced to give back more than $2.8 million in illegal or improper donations from foreign nationals.

The most suspect funds were brought in by Johnny Chung, a bagman for the Asian billionaire Riady family. Chung confessed that at least $35,000 of his donations to the Clinton campaign and the DNC had come from a Chinese aerospace executive — a lieutenant colonel in the Chinese military. Chung said the executive had helped him meet three times with General Ji Shengde, the head of Chinese military intelligence. According to Chung’s testimony, General Shengde had told him: “We really like your president. We hope he will be reelected. I will give you $300,000 U.S. dollars. You can give it to . . . your president and the Democratic party.”

The sprawling fundraising scandal ultimately led to 22 guilty pleas on various violations of election laws.

The sprawling fundraising scandal ultimately led to 22 guilty pleas on various violations of election laws. Among the Clinton fundraisers and friends who pleaded guilty were John Huang, Charlie Trie, James Riady, and Michael Brown, son of the late Clinton Commerce secretary Ron Brown. But many questions went unanswered, even after the revelations that Clinton had personally authorized offering donors Oval Office meetings and use of the Lincoln bedroom. A total of 120 participants in the fundraising scandal either fled the country, asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, or otherwise avoided questioning. The stonewalling worked — and probably encouraged Hillary Clinton in her own cover-up of her private e-mail server and her ties with the Clinton Foundation.

Indeed, much of the media basically gave the Clintons a pass on evidence that special-interest donors to the Clinton Foundation frequently managed to score favors from the State Department. Journalist Peter Schweitzer revealed in his book Clinton Cash that State had helped move along an infamous deal that granted the Russians control of more than 20 percent of the uranium production here in the United States. The company involved in acquiring the American uranium was a very large donor to — you guessed it — the Clinton Foundation.

None of this history should dissuade the media from questioning the White House’s often shifting and blatantly inaccurate accounts of what happened and who was involved and when. Either the president’s team is infected with a self-destructive gene or they really do have something to hide.

But a little humility and honesty on the part of the media would be appropriate. Much of the breathless and constant coverage of the Russia scandal is motivated by the media’s hatred of Donald Trump, which is of course reciprocated.

When it came to the Clintons, the media tended to downplay or even trivialize many of their scandals.

When it came to the Clintons, the media tended to downplay or even trivialize many of their scandals. But, to be fair, a little bit of self-awareness is beginning to show up in the Russia coverage. Last Thursday, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC noted that when it came to “opening the door” to lowering the standards of conduct by a modern president, Bill Clinton led the way with his lying and scandalous behavior. She was referring, of course, to the Lewinsky scandal, but her comments are equally appropriate to the many other Clinton scandals that didn’t receive wall-to-wall coverage.

READ MORE:

With Trump, the Benefit of the Doubt Is Gone

16 Things You Have to Believe to Buy the ‘Witch Hunt’ Russia Narrative

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