- - Monday, January 27, 2020

The Chinese Year of the Rat began on Jan. 25. The year Bill Clinton was re-elected, 1996, was also a Year of the Rat and the scandals coming out of that re-election effort, sometimes known as “Chinagate,” not only dogged his entire second term, they were a powerful undercurrent to his impeachment trial in the Senate in early 1999.

A time line is often useful. President Clinton was impeached by the House on Dec. 19, 1998, and everyone knew that the trial would begin after the Christmas break, i.e. January 1999. So the Lewinsky matter was public.

What was not widely known is that on Dec. 4, 1998, two weeks  before the House impeachment, FBI Director Louis Freeh had held a private meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno to request that she name an independent counsel to investigate certain persons, including Mr. Clinton and  Vice President Al Gore. 

As he put it later in his “Memorandum for the Record,” Mr. Freeh wanted the independent counsel to examine specific federal crimes, including a possible “conspiracy by the People’s Republic of China to bribe high-ranking U.S. political figures.” i.e. Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore and possibly other members of his administration. Miss Reno rejected Mr. Freeh’s request but knowledge of this event circulated on the Hill.

So as the trial began in January 1999, the Republican senators had before them, officially, the Lewinsky charges from the House impeachment which while confined to Miss Lewinsky really stood in many peoples’ minds for Mr. Clinton’s entire pattern of abuse that would lead to his disbarment in a separate case.

But, unofficially, the GOP had “The Year of the Rat” — Mr. Freeh’s complaint that grew out of the extensive hearings Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, held in the Senate Government Affairs Committee beginning in 1997. Those hearings and the report that came out of them were damning. In the same way that everyone on the Hill knew how Mr. Clinton treated women in private, everyone on the Hill knew the Clinton administration was dirty on China. 

Jeff Gerth and his team of investigators at The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1999 “For a series of articles that disclosed the corporate sale of American technology to China, with U.S. government approval despite national security risks, prompting investigations and significant changes in policy.” Notice “with U.S. government approval” — i.e. Mr. Clinton signed the papers.

As the trial began in January 1999, I was personally engaged because I was floor counsel to Sen. Robert Bennett, Utah Republican, and I had been his counsel for the Thompson Chinagate hearings in 1997. All of the floor counsels did their due diligence and went through the Lewinsky materials from top to bottom. 

As was common in those days, we also — Democratic and Republican floor counsels — exchanged information and points of view. The late Barbara Olson, floor counsel to Sen. Don  Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, was the best on the Republican side. The Democratic senators and others who wanted to give Mr. Clinton a pass were in more than a bit of a bind because their floor counsels were telling them the same things we Republican counsels were telling our principals: We had sympathy for Miss Lewinsky. We thought she was clearly abused. 

The Republican senators had a major decision to make: Did they really want to remove Bill Clinton from office or not? In that era, the votes were not there to remove him on the basis of the Lewinsky facts. Today, I think it would be a different result, once all the facts are known as they were to the floor counsels and those senators who were willing to do a deep dive into the mess.

What the Republican senators could have easily done is say to their Democratic colleagues, “Do what we did with Nixon. Go Downtown and tell him he has to leave because of this China thing or we will get the House to re-impeach him on that and the entire administration including Gore will be in the mix as well.”

This is not far-fetched. There were overtures at the time coming from the Democrat side just as there are certain overtures about witnesses passing around now. There is no doubt that with the Thompson committee results, The New York Times investigators turning up new China penetration stories daily and Mr. Freeh and Co. behind them, Clinton impeachment on Chinagate aka “Year of the Rat” offenses would have been a foregone conclusion.

But the Republicans did not do that. After the Lewinsky vote failed, they more or less left him alone for the next two years. A person might suspect that the Republicans felt that a sitting President Gore would be a stronger candidate in the upcoming 2000 election than “our guy” even then presumed to be Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Why does any of this interesting history matter? Because if the Democrats crash and burn on Super Tuesday and turn to the Clintons again, the GOP will not walk away from The Year of the Rat like they did in 1999 and the entire Clinton relationship with China will be on the table.  

• William C. Triplett II is the co-author of “The Year of the Rat,” Regnery 1998.

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