This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
In a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Hillary Clinton suggested China should try to access Donald Trump’s tax returns and leak them to the press.
“Why should Russia have all the fun? And since Russia is clearly backing Republicans, why don’t we ask China to back us [Democrats]?” She continued, “China, if you’re listening, why don’t you get Trump’s tax returns? I’m sure our media would richly reward you.”
Given the Clinton camp’s outrage at Trump’s July 2016 statement of this nature, this remark is certainly hypocritical. Nonetheless, if we lived in a world where it was ridiculous to expect China to actually intercede on behalf of the Democrats or Clinton, it would be easy to write this off as little more than a sarcastic jab.
However, these comments take on a totally different flavor given that China has previously intervened in a U.S. presidential election on behalf of Democrats. And not just any Democrat.
In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole decided to take a hard line on China—portraying the nation as a growing economic and geopolitical threat to the United States and a violator of international rules and norms. In response, China tried to leverage their extensive diplomatic, intelligence and financial networks in the United States in order to sway the election in favor of his Democratic rival, one William Jefferson Clinton.
However, the plot was discovered. A major federal investigation ensued. Several prominent Democratic fundraisers, including close Clinton associates, were found to be complicit in the Chinese meddling efforts and were convicted on charges ranging from conspiracy and espionage to violations of campaign finance and disclosure laws (most notably James T. Riady, Johnny Chung, John Huang, Charlie Trie, Maria Hsia, and Ng Lap Seng). Several others fled the country to escape U.S. jurisdiction as the probe got underway. The Democratic National Committee was forced to pay huge fines to the Federal Election Commission and return millions of dollars in ill-gotten funds – although by that point, of course, their candidate had already won.
To underscore the scale of this, consider that Mueller’s team “did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated” with Russia’s 2016 interference operation. However, the 1996 scandal identified several Americans complicit in China’s efforts to swing the election, and led to substantial sanctions against the DNC itself. But wait, it gets worse.
Rather than punishing China in any way for undermining our democratic process, Bill Clinton used his second term to ease sanctions and normalize relations with Beijing – even as the U.S. ratcheted up sanctions against Cuba, Iran and Iraq. Before leaving office, Clinton signed a series of sweeping trade deals that radically expanded China’s economic and geopolitical clout, despite his own administration’s forecast that this would come at the expense of key U.S. industries and manufacturing workers.
In February 1996 Clinton hosted Wang Jun at a White House fundraiser – an arms dealer with close ties to the Chinese army who was being actively investigated by U.S. federal agents at the time. Shortly into his second term, Bill Clinton authorized a series of controversial defense contracts with China despite Department of Justice objections. Investigators warned that the contractors seemed to be passing highly sensitive and unauthorized information and technologies to Beijing. And indeed, the companies in question were eventually found to have violated the law by giving cutting-edge missile technology to China, and paid unprecedented fines related to the Arms Export Control Act during the administration of George W. Bush. But they were inexplicably greenlit by Bill Clinton in the interim despite the red flags.
Polls showed that the public found the president’s posture on China to be so disconcerting that most supported appointing an independent counsel (a la Mueller) to investigate whether the Clinton administration had essentially been “bought.”
Law enforcement officials shared these concerns: FBI director Louis Freeh very publicly called for the appointment of an independent counsel – seconded by Charles La Bella, the chief prosecutor charged with investigating Chinese meddling. However, they were repeatedly blocked by Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno – eventually leading La Bella to resign in protest of the AG’s consistent obstruction.
This is, again, in stark contrast with Trump’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation and allowed the Mueller probe to proceed (despite Trump’s vehement objections).
Nonetheless, Bill Clinton had the audacity to suggest last year that, based on his experience, if a Democrat were facing a similar investigation, “impeachment hearings would have begun already.”
Clinton was impeached for abusing his office in pursuit of sexual gratification and then perjuring himself before Congress about it – not for anything related to China. There were no impeachment hearings ever put into motion for the 1996 foreign meddling scheme, despite being worse than Russiagate in many respects.
In other words, Bill Clinton’s insinuation of a double standard is false. What’s more, he certainly knew it was false as he was saying it – given that he was involved in a very similar scandal himself and faced no impeachment moves for it. Yet no one pointed out this contradiction.
Nor has anyone responded to Hillary Clinton’s recent appeal to China by highlighting that it’s not exactly a joke to say, “If you’re going to let Russia get away with what they did and are still doing… let’s get the Chinese in on the side of somebody else” when Beijing has previously intervened in U.S. presidential elections on behalf of Democrats—her husband, no less.
Isn’t it someone’s job to hold powerful people to account?
What happened to the fourth estate?
When the Clintons make these kinds of statements – openly calling for China to meddle (again) in 2020, or (falsely) claiming that Democrats would be subjected to a higher standard if accused of foreign collusion – they seem to be counting on the media being too myopic, or too sympathetic, to recognize or hold them accountable for their cynicism. And up to now, unfortunately, this bet has paid off.
We’ve been talking about foreign meddling incessantly for approaching three years now, yet virtually no one has bothered to mention the 1996 foreign meddling scandal. This despite continuing China-related financial improprieties involving both the Clintons and the DNC chairman who presided over the 1996 debacle (Terry McAuliffe) throughout the Obama administration – and despite the fact that the intended target of the current foreign meddling attempt just so happens to be married to the intended beneficiary of the last!
And the Clintons are clearly reveling in this collective failure of the press – trolling the media, and gaslighting the public, in a way that Trump could never dream of.
Here’s Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post, self-righteously condemning foreign meddling and calling for action on the Mueller report. Here, a viral video of Hillary Clinton reading parts of the Mueller report aloud, with Bill—the beneficiary of the last foreign meddling scandal – nodding approvingly by her side and occasionally smirking.
To the extent that reporters would plead ignorance of the Chinese meddling affair as their defense, this serves as its own indictment. As I explained after the midterms for the Washington Post, so many seem locked into the analytical frame that everything Trump does is “unprecedented” that it never seems to occur to them that precedents might be out there (other than their fantasy analogy, Nixon/Watergate). This discarding of the past undermines our ability to understand what is happening in the present – and how things are likely to shake out down the line.
It also does a disservice to previous generations of reporters, such as those who covered the 1996 foreign meddling scandal. This essay was built primarily on excellent reporting by the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN from the mid-to-late 90s and early aughts – archived online and freely available, yet woefully neglected over the past three years despite wall-to-wall coverage on foreign meddling.
This has got to stop. As veteran journalist William Arkin put it in his resignation letter from NBC/ MSNBC, it is not okay to give bad actors a pass simply because they align themselves with the #Resistance. Foreign meddling, and calls for foreign meddling, should not only be considered “bad” if they benefit Republicans. We’re better than this, right?