Partisan GOP will have hard time conducting credible inquiry

May 25, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

NEWT Gingrich is right about one thing. The new questions about a "Chinese connection" with the Clinton administration are serious and should be investigated.

But it would be a stretch to believe that the speaker and the House Republicans can conduct a credible investigation. Unlike Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., Mr. Gingrich has never called President Clinton a "scumbag" but he has been conducting a harsh partisan attack for the past three weeks.

There are two related questions that need answers. The first: Did a high-ranking Chinese military officer give $100,000 to the Democratic Party through an intermediary to help finance Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign?

And the second is whether the president signed a waiver allowing a company run by a major American contributor to sell satellite technology to China as a payoff for some $600,000 in campaign contributions. This is, in short, a question about a quid pro quo.

The president, of course, denied any connection between decisions he made on technology transfers and campaign money.

As the White House has pointed out, there have been a number of such waivers granted U.S. firms by Mr. Clinton and his predecessors in the White House. And there are sound policy reasons for approving some technology transfers to the Chinese.

White House officials also contend that Mr. Clinton knew nothing of Chinese contributions to his campaign, a plausible denial in light of the fact that the money supposedly was steered into the campaign treasury by a middle man to disguise its source.

But Mr. Gingrich has tried to put a different face on the issue by depicting it as a question of "national security," not campaign finance. This is all about selling military secrets, Mr. Gingrich says.

This is an approach that allows the speaker an easy way to bypass Mr. Burton, whose credibility has long since been frittered away, and choose instead a "special" committee. And lest any of his most conservative colleagues accuse him of going soft, Mr. Gingrich has chosen Rep. Christopher Cox of California, a militant of the far right, to lead the committee.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott also has tried to depict the issue as one of national security rather than campaign finance by naming Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama from the Intelligence Committee to head an inquiry. The message there is that the Republicans recognize the campaign finance issue has lost any appeal it might have had, particularly at a time when they are trying to scuttle anything that might be called serious reform.

The irony in this approach is that it appears to bypass the one Republican who now might have some credibility on the question, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. He opened the Senate campaign money hearings last year by saying there was evidence the Chinese had tried to influence the election of 1996. But he was derided for going overboard when he was unable to provide the specifics to support the charge.

Now, however, Mr. Thompson has achieved at least a measure of vindication by the report that Johnny Chung, a Chinese-American businessman, has told the Justice Department that he did indeed relay $100,000 from a Chinese military official to the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Thompson, who is considering a run for president, has reacted with conspicuous reserve. Asked the other day if he suspected a quid pro quo, he replied that he wouldn't believe that of any president. It was the perfect reply in a political context in which Americans are disgusted by blatant partisanship at every turn.

For the White House, the particular problem is in the likelihood that the House Republicans will be holding hearings on the China matter next month -- before the president is scheduled to fly to Beijing for the first summit there since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Some of the Republicans are suggesting, predictably, that Mr. Clinton postpone the meeting until these allegations are investigated, something they are fully aware the president could not do without causing a major diplomatic breach with the Chinese government.

In short, Mr. Gingrich and his allies are already playing an extremely partisan game in dealing with these new issues. There is no reason to believe they can conduct an investigation that anyone will believe is credible.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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