After two weeks of Senate hearings on campaign finance practices, it is fair, as the lawyers say, to stipulate the following:
The Chinese government had a plan to try to influence the U.S. election campaign last year.
The Lippo Group, the financial conglomerate based in Indonesia, has a close business relationship with the Chinese government.
The Riady family, which controls the Lippo Group, has long been a patron of President Clinton.
John Huang, who was Lippo’s chief representative in the United States, was awarded a patronage position in the Clinton administration as a deputy assistant secretary of commerce not because of his expertise in trade matters but because he was a loyal fund-raiser for the Democratic Party and was personally sponsored by the president.
Because of his government position, Huang had access to classified information that would be useful to Lippo.
During the 18 months he was at the Commerce Department, Huang used a private office across the street from his official one, was often in contact with Lippo officials and frequently visited the White House.
Both before and after his stay at Commerce, and perhaps during it, Huang was a prodigious fund-raiser who often skirted the law.
While those points were demonstrated incontrovertibly, the Republican senators and their staff investigators failed to prove their most important suspicions, which they never expressed explicitly but suggested obliquely: that Huang had been either a conduit for the Chinese government to pour money into the Clinton re-election campaign, or an industrial spy for Lippo, or both.
No matter how hard the Republicans pressed their witnesses, the evidence trailed off before they reached pay dirt.
In the case of the Chinese plot, the Republicans have been unable to prove that any of Beijing’s money was actually put into any U.S. campaign, much less the president’s. As for Lippo’s ties with China, Thomas R. Hampson, the expert witness who described the connection, was unable to say whether Chinese money was part of Lippo’s enterprises in the United States or whether China Resources, the commercial arm of the Chinese government that does business with Lippo, had any activities in this country.
The committee turned up one apparently illegal and previously unreported donation to the Democratic Party from the Riady family that was arranged by Huang. But that donation was made in 1992, not 1996.
No evidence was offered showing that Huang had been hired by the Commerce Department in a way any different from the way hundreds of other patronage appointments have been made by this and other presidential administrations.
The Central Intelligence Agency officer who briefed Huang on classified matters testified that he had done so not at Huang’s request but on the instructions of one of Huang’s superiors. The CIA officer said he had no indication that the classified material had been misused.
As for the Republican hunch that Huang took classified documents to the private office across the street from the Commerce Department and copied them or faxed them to Lippo, the secretary in that office, maintained by an Arkansas investment company, testified that she did not know whether Huang had ever used the copier or the fax machine.
The investigators presumably have telephone records from the company’s fax machine and doubtless would have said so if the records bore any indication of illicit faxes to a Lippo telephone number.
The Republicans presented nothing to rebut the assertions of Democrats that Huang’s calls to Lippo had been mostly routine, to get messages from people who thought he was still employed by Lippo, and that his visits to the White House had been for social or official functions.
So what the Republicans were left with was evidence that Huang was something of a foul ball who might have broken laws by soliciting campaign contributions from abroad, laundering contributions as well and engaging in partisan politics while on the government payroll.
All this may have been part of a pattern of reckless campaign fundraising on the president’s behalf that the Republicans may try to document in the weeks ahead.
But no testimony was offered showing that Huang had dealt in Chinese government money. And what was proved was a far cry from corroboration of the assertion by Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, when, in opening the hearings, he declared that a Chinese plot “affected the 1996 presidential race.” Nor was there any corroboration of the suggestion by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in his opening statement that Huang and perhaps others were “high-placed industrial spies.”
To be sure, the senators and their investigators are working under a handicap. Huang is refusing to cooperate, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. Many other witnesses like the Riadys are out of the country.
Thompson, R-Tenn., argued that in the absence of complete evidence, it was perfectly reasonable to draw inferences from circumstantial evidence.
But the chasm between the circumstantial evidence presented and the suspicions raised was so large that the Democratic senators were able to respond by saying the Republicans had breached the line between inference and innuendo.