WASHINGTON — If you watched the testimony of former FBI chief James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, you heard Democratic senators refer to Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election as a "hostile" act by a "hostile" government, an affront, their tone suggested, heretofore unknown in American politics. Yet two decades earlier, in that very same hearing room, a Senate committee investigated Chinese attempts to interfere with the 1996 presidential election. In his opening statement, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, warned of a plan "hatched by the Chinese government" designed to "pour illegal contributions" into U.S. election campaigns. A key beneficiary was President Bill Clinton.
Different hostile country, different party benefited, same reputed intent, but now a cobweb for the history books.
It was a big story that seems hauntingly familiar to the Russia probe. In 1997, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward reported that a Justice Department "investigation has established that the plan was launched in 1995 as a relatively benign congressional lobbying activity, but became an effort whose goal was to illegally funnel money into political campaigns. Approved at the highest levels of the Beijing government, the plan was placed under the control of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, Beijing's equivalent of the CIA.
"Thus far, however, federal investigators have been unable to discover a direct link between money from Beijing and the Democratic National Committee or the Clinton re-election campaign."
The Thompson committee held 32 days of hearings, interviewed 72 witnesses and spent $3.5 million. In the end, Thompson, now better-known as an actor on "Law & Order" who died in 2015, never nailed a definitive connection to the Chinese government. But a number of individuals targeted by the committee were convicted of or pleaded guilty to violating election law.
"It's not any one real big thing," Thompson said as the committee wrapped up business, according to CNN. "It's a lot of things strung together that paint a real ugly picture."
The Clinton fundraising scandal produced some unforgettable images and characters. Vice President Al Gore attended what was supposed to be a community outreach event at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles but turned out to be a fundraiser. A trio of Buddhist nuns testified about the event and the decision to destroy a list of donor names.
Los Angeles entrepreneur and big donor Johnny Chung famously said, "I see the White House is like a subway. You have to put in coins to open the gates." Chung visited the White House at least 49 times.
Former committee chief counsel Michael J. Madigan blames obstruction from the Clinton administration for the committee's inability to make a definitive connection. Some 45 individuals either invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or fled the country, according to the committee report. The committee gave itself a demanding deadline — year's end — that encouraged stonewalling.
Was the Chinese government pushing for Clinton to win?
"If they gave them money, which they did," Madigan answered, "and he didn't get in, then they would have wasted their money."
There may be superficial similarities between the two committees, Lanny J. Davis, who was special counsel to the president at the time, opined Friday. Thompson "never was able to find" evidence that Beijing was behind the dodgy donations. "He has circumstantial evidence," nothing more.
Thompson could never tie China to Clinton in 1997, Davis continued, but in an October 2016 statement, the intelligence community expressed confidence that Russia was behind hacking of U.S. political institutions. And that settled the question for Davis. Note that the intelligence community has been confident but wrong before.
Davis added that Trump's rhetoric and actions raised red flags: Trump said, "I love WikiLeaks," said Davis, whereas Clinton never said, "Yeah, I want the Chinese money. Why not?"
So 20 years ago, a Senate committee saw numerous instances of inappropriate behavior linked circumstantially to China, which, like Russia, is not exactly a U.S. ally. The investigation produced a number of stories that put the White House in a bad light. For their part, Democrats on the Thompson committee were not eager to pursue allegations wherever they led.
Madigan believes that with more resources and time, a solid link might have been found. It could be that some things never are going to become clear in the muted light of a congressional investigation.
A month later, America learned about former Clinton White House intern Monica Lewinsky. To Madigan, that story spelled the end of the China probe.
"My own view," he said, "because of the Monica situation and (the fact that) they wanted to impeach him, it just died."