FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno testify before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee during the investigation into Chinese interference in the 1996 election cycle, December 9, 1997. Photo Credit: Douglas Graham via Getty Images.

By David Kurlander

The specter of Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election continues to grow, as do concerns about a disjointed response by the  intelligence community, the Department of Justice, and the White House. FBI Director Christopher Wray two weeks ago offered a blunt assessment of the Russian threat, leading to a sharp rebuke from President Trump. Then, last week, Politico reported that the CIA has limited the flow of Russia-related intelligence to the White House, potentially to avoid provoking Trump’s ire. The vitriol of today’s fracas is unprecedented, but investigations of foreign election interference have inflamed White House tensions before. During and after the 1996 Presidential Election, journalists and Republican politicians alleged that China had improper inroads to the Democratic National Committee, congressional Democrats, and directly to the Oval Office. The subsequent FBI investigation pitted Director Louis Freeh against President Clinton and resulted in a years-long bout of legal shadowboxing…

In October 1996, the Wall Street Journal and House Republicans began investigating the Lippo Group, an Indonesian banking conglomerate run by the Riadys, a dynastic family with ties to the Chinese government. Although the Riadys and their allies had given questionable donations to both parties, they were more entrenched with Democrats and personally knew President Clinton through their minority control of Worthen Bank, the largest bank in Arkansas. An ex-Lippo executive, John Huang, had also become a higher-up at the Commerce Department and a major fundraiser for the DNC. A 1997 CNN timeline-relic of the mushrooming scandal breaks down the labyrinthine cast of characters who journalists or congresspeople subsequently connected to similarly questionable donations, from nuns at a Los Angeles Buddhist Temple to Miami drug dealer Jorge Cabrera. 

The allegations remained at a low rumble through November. After President Clinton’s resounding re-election, however, congressional Republicans pushed for inquiries into the whole plethora of alleged campaign finance abuses. The flare-up came at a fortuitous moment—just as the initial Whitewater investigation into Clinton’s finances was winding down and shortly before the first revelations involving Monica Lewinsky emerged. Senator Fred Thompson announced the opening of a Senate inquiry in January 1997, while Dan Burton, a longtime Clinton nemesis and one of the first members of Congress to cast doubt on Vince Foster’s suicide, led an even more aggressive investigation in the House. 

In early March 1997, the controversy took on a more geopolitical dimension. The Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Brian Duffy published Department of Justice intelligence suggesting that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had directly ordered $2.5 million to be laundered into campaign contributions to powerful Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The reporters implied that the Chinese mission was connected to their lobbying push to retain its Most Favored Nation status.

The Post reporting contained two even more impactful claims. First, the targeted congresspeople revealed that the FBI had briefed them on the supposed Chinese plot back before the election. Second, a White House official claimed that the FBI hadn’t briefed President Clinton. Was this because Clinton himself was also implicated through his relationship to Huang and the Riadys? Wasn’t this information that the Commander in Chief needed to have, particularly given that Chinese Premier Jian Ziamin was scheduled for a high-intensity visit to Washington that Fall?

The press pounced. The day after the story broke, on March 10th, 1997, Clinton hosted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the East Room of the White House for a contentious conversation about Israeli construction in East Jerusalem—an act that had led to a U.S.-vetoed United Nations resolution condemning Israel. While Clinton walked a tightrope with Mubarak, a fragile ally of Israel, he also fielded probing press questions about Freeh’s lack of candor.

Clinton initially deflected the questions with trademark suavity. But then a reporter asked, “Mr. President, you don’t seem particularly angry that allegations that a foreign power was trying to subvert the U.S. elections were not brought to your attention…You’re the person ultimately in charge of U.S. national security; I’m just wondering why you wouldn’t pick up the phone and demand of Director Freeh why you weren’t told?” 

Clinton smiled, while Mubarak waited awkwardly to the side. “Well, what I seem and what I feel may be two different things. The older I get, the more I become aware of the fact that there’s some things that there’s no point in expending a lot of energy on. It didn’t happen. It should have happened. It was a mistake.” 

Clearly, internal tensions were high. Over the summer, Freeh and Clinton engaged in a tense game of he-said-he-said, with Freeh denying that he had hidden information from Clinton but suggesting that the President keep his distance from the investigation. In Clinton’s autobiography, My Life, he wrote, “I didn’t believe Freeh was foolish enough to think the Democratic Party would knowingly accept illegal contributions from the Chinese government; he was just trying to avoid criticism from the press and the Republicans, even if it damaged our foreign policy operations.” Freeh directly responded in his own memoirs, My FBI: “”Bill Clinton couldn’t have this more wrong…I didn’t take the job of FBI Director so I could roll over and play dead when it became convenient for the White House.” 

At the time, however, the nastiness of the engagement seldom boiled over into public ad hominem attacks. Attorney General Janet Reno opted—much to Freeh’s chagrin—not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the scandal, but Freeh avoided public invective, refusing to air out an anguished 27-page internal memo he had earlier sent arguing for the appointment. When the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed the document in December 1997, Freeh and Reno both claimed that turning it over would hurt the ongoing investigation and defied the request. And despite their mutual distrust, Freeh and Clinton largely avoided further direct criticisms of one another until their book-writing days. Hearings continued all the way through to the millennium and several donors faced charges, but the controversy eventually petered out. 

As the pre-election anguish emanates from the White House, perhaps there is utility in recognizing the universal nature—Democratic and Republican—of power struggles and campaign weirdness. The sheer rancor of the Trumpian moment, however, makes any historical comparison seem a bit innocent and bland. 

For more on the current election interference controversies, check out this week’s episode of United Security with Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein. For a rundown of the issues stemming from the 1996 election cycle, check out this ancient cache of Washington Post stories.

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