A foreign adversary trying to curry favor with a major American political party. Surreptitious and illegal efforts to influence the election in that party’s favor. A national officeholder and White House staff targeted. A resulting political furor, followed by criminal and congressional investigations. Replace Russia with China, the 2016 election with 1996, and President Donald Trump with Vice President Al Gore, and there are disturbing parallels. But unlike Trump, the Clinton-Gore White House adopted an approach of reasonable, albeit begrudging, accommodation of investigators, including Gore’s voluntary participation in an interview with federal prosecutors. It was a better legal strategy to protect Gore, and much healthier for the country, than Trump’s scorched earth attacks on intelligence and law enforcement professionals.
As a young attorney for Gore, I responded to congressional and criminal subpoenas in the ensuing investigations. The way the Clinton-Gore operation handled the crisis helped mitigate the political damage. Even more important, it navigated the legal and political minefield within the framework and legitimacy of essential American institutions of law enforcement and the intelligence community, rather than targeting them with political attacks.
As details of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting on the promise of Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton have emerged, a number of old Gore and George W. Bush staffers recall an episode from the 2000 campaign. A debate preparation binder compiled by the Bush campaign was delivered to an adviser to the Gore campaign. Instead of using stolen insider information, the Gore campaign immediately reported it to the FBI. That was the honorable path, and one that should have been apparent to Trump campaign officials when they were approached by Russians.
Another stark example of integrity occurred when Gore implored those of us on his staff to tamp down efforts by supporters to take to the streets in mass demonstrations after the Supreme Court decision that decided the 2000 presidential election in his opponent’s favor. His deep-seated commitment to the rule of law and the peaceful transition of power — even under what we all considered outrageous circumstances — led him to understand that continuing the fight after that point could imperil the long-term health of the country.
Gore’s commitment to American institutions informed his management of fallout from an earlier controversy — apparent Chinese efforts to influence the 1996 re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton against his challenger, Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
In April of that year, as the presidential campaign was in its early stages, then-Vice President Gore attended an event at the Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles. It later turned out that Maria Hsia, a longtime Gore fundraiser, had laundered some $60,000 in campaign donations to Democratic political entities through straw donors, including Buddhist nuns Gore had met at the temple. Gore had received support from Hsia dating back to his 1990 Senate campaign. He said later that he originally understood the temple event as a Democratic National Committee occasion to reach a segment of the Asian-American community, but he later conceded it was probably finance-related. At the time, questions loomed about whether the campaign’s top leaders might have known about the illicit contributions.
Republicans pounced. They designated a fellow Tennessean, Sen. Fred Thompson (R), to conduct a congressional investigation as chair of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, the precursor to what is now the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Republicans also wanted then-Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel. Although she didn’t take that step, the Department of Justice nevertheless aggressively prosecuted the case.
The Thompson investigation, investigative reporting by news media, and ultimately a criminal investigation conducted by a Campaign Finance Task Force within the Justice Department revealed other foreign influence efforts emanating from Asia as well. The players included John Huang, a DNC official with responsibility for constituency outreach and fundraising among Asian Americans, and a fundraising entity called the Pacific Leadership Council formed by Hsia, Huang, and the wealthy Riady family of Indonesia.
Most disturbing were allegations that Chinese intelligence was orchestrating these efforts to cultivate political contacts within the Democratic party. The Justice Department uncovered evidence that the Chinese Embassy had been used for planning illegal political contributions to the DNC. The Thompson investigation alleged that Hsia was a Chinese intelligence agent. Johnny Chung, a Democratic fundraiser, told federal investigators that China’s military intelligence chief, Gen. Ji Shangde, had funneled $300,000 through Chung to support Clinton’s re-election campaign.
The Chinese Embassy denied the allegations. White House spokesman Jim Kennedy responded by saying the White House had no prior knowledge of the source of Chung’s funds, and declined to comment further about “allegations regarding intelligence matters.”
Justice Department prosecutors won convictions against the primary players in the illegal fundraising schemes:
- In May 1999, Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie, who had been in the Clinton orbit for some time, pleaded guilty after he was indicted for campaign finance violations and obstruction of justice related to some $600,000 in opaquely sourced political donations.
- The same month, Huang pleaded guilty to a single felony charge in return for substantial cooperation in the investigation.
- In March 2000, amid Gore’s primary battle with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hsia was convicted of funneling more than $100,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Democratic candidates during the 1996 campaign cycle. Significantly, at her trial, prosecutors “contended [Gore] was unaware of any problems with Hsia’s activities.”
- In January 2001, James T. Riady pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy to defraud the United States related to illegal campaign contributions, and LippoBank California, which Riady headed, pleaded to 86 related misdemeanor charges and agreed to pay an $8.6 million fine.
The Chinese election interference scandal came at a political cost to Gore. Republicans did their best to maximize the damage in order to hobble Gore’s anticipated presidential campaign. Republicans on the Hill leaked the transcript of Gore’s April 2000 FBI interview on the eve of the Democratic National Convention that nominated Gore for president.
The Clinton-Gore Response
But Gore’s choices about how to respond to the scandal—and when to avoid comment— mitigated those political costs. More important, Gore’s patriotism and common sense meant that Clinton and Gore did not go to war with federal law enforcement and the U.S. intelligence community.
The following were the hallmarks of the Clinton-Gore legal, official, and political response:
- Reinforce with public statements that American elections should be free of interference by foreign governments.
It’s a pretty simple concept, and it places the White House firmly on the side of American democracy. For example, Senate Democrats, who criticized perceived partisan excesses of the Thompson committee Republicans, still began their minority report by affirming the importance of election integrity: “Clean and fair elections lie at the very heart of our democratic system of government, and the American people are entitled to know whether the electoral process was compromised or corrupted during the 1996 election cycle.” I can’t recall Trump or his Hill allies making a clear statement on the need for American election integrity in the face of foreign threats. To the contrary, he has denied or prevaricated at every turn, either insisting that the Russians didn’t interfere, contrary to the findings of his own intelligence agencies, or falsely asserting that the agencies found there was no effect on the outcome.
- Assure the public that policy was not affected by tainted Chinese political donations.
In response to the campaign finance investigation, Clinton spoke about the process by which policy decisions had been taken. In one case, for example, he asserted, “The decisions we made, we made because we thought they were in the best interests of the American people.” On a sensitive trip to China, in the face of Chinese denials, Gore told the Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng the allegations would not affect U.S.-Chinese relations unless the accusations proved true. Even there, Gore took for granted that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence professionals, rather than the White House, would make those determinations about Chinese culpability.
- Allow the investigation to run its course.
Unlike Trump’s repeated attacks on the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” Clinton told the public, “I think the investigation ought to proceed, and whatever the facts are, we’ll take appropriate action at that time.” Embedded in that statement are three important points: (a) the president is not trying to interfere with law enforcement processes, (b) he won’t prejudge the facts, and (c) if there is wrongdoing, those responsible should be held accountable.
It’s also notable that, while the White House under both Clinton and Trump responded to investigators’ requests for documents, Gore also submitted to an interview with campaign finance investigators. Gore’s interview performance and candor became the subject of debate, but there was no barrage of attacks from Gore’s team against the investigators. It remains to be seen whether Trump will follow suit with his own FBI interview.
Trump’s continued public and private efforts to interfere and impede the Russia investigation will be one of his signature legacies of damage to American democratic institutions and the rule of law. In contrast, White House responses to the Chinese influence investigation in the 1990s did not seek to delegitimize the investigation or attack the investigators.
Such a principled response can also pragmatically cauterize the White House from subsequent factual revelations. As long as evidence does not directly implicate the knowledge or conduct of the president or vice president, they don’t own it. Consider, in contrast, Trump’s refusal to embrace the intelligence community findings that Russia interfered in the election and did so to support Trump. Now Trump stands in opposition to every additional fact about Russian active measures that comes out, even though each fact basically proves what the public, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement officials already collectively know to be true. Why take on all that unnecessary liability?
- Minimize comment about the pending investigation.
This approach — a top-line recognition that a legitimate inquiry is ongoing that would limit commentary — mitigates the additional legal problems brought on by public commentary about a pending investigation. Every criminal defense lawyer advises the client not to speak about the subject of the investigation absent some pressing justification. In contrast, Trump continues to engulf his administration in controversy as he pours gasoline on the fire with each statement. He has abandoned a time-honored approach of refusing to comment absent a few well-crafted and evidence-based responses. A principled refusal to comment also has the practical benefit of allowing the White House to move onto other topics and advance its affirmative agenda. Instead, the Trump White House criticizes its negative press coverage without acknowledging its own hand in fueling it.
The biggest problem Gore faced was that he had to walk back his initial characterization of the Buddhist temple event as “community outreach.” Once it became clear by a review of documents that there was a paper trail connecting the temple event to DNC fundraising efforts, Gore conceded it was “finance-related.” In January 1997, he told the press: “I knew it was a political event and I knew there were finance people who were going to be present,” Gore said. “And so that alone should have told me this was inappropriate, this was a mistake, don’t do this. And I take responsibility for that.” On one hand, it was a sign of Gore’s character that he wanted to correct the record based on evidence. However, it also gave fodder to press skeptics and political opponents that a story that changed once could change again.
This is another cautionary tale of investigative legal defense for political figures: It’s critical to get your arms around the facts in the face of initial pressure to comment on a potential scandal-worthy event. Better to hold off those demanding an immediate account of events to give the lawyers and communications staff time to figure out what happened.
- Push back on political attacks or unsubstantiated allegations with evidence.
Minimizing comment did not mean unilateral disarmament from political attacks. As the Republicans prepared to showcase Thompson’s hearings, the White House released documents, memoranda, and emails demonstrating that Gore was unaware of any illicit fundraising scheme in connection with his appearance at the Hsia Lai Temple. These documents chronicled the evolution of the event planning that morphed into fundraising activity, but also demonstrated a lack of awareness of that change on Gore’s part. White House communications staff and lawyers appropriately walked reporters through these materials. But rather than defense by screed, it was a defense grounded in facts and the reasonable inferences they supported.
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It has been well-chronicled that the Clinton-Gore political operation and White House made mistakes and cut corners as they engaged in the arms race for campaign cash. But there was no evidence that Gore was aware of any straw-donor campaign contribution scheme by a foreign adversary, which he would never have countenanced.
I also do not mean to suggest that the Clinton-Gore White House response to scrutiny was perfect. Or that these events weren’t political, or politicized, at the time. But a responsible and effective strategy allowed law enforcement processes to run their course and minimized fallout for the White House. In the end, American institutions were preserved, Gore survived the period with limited damage, and the whole Chinese influence effort is a near-forgotten footnote of our political history.