Asiagate, Week IV: Thompson Unleashed
Fred Thompson lashed out at the Clinton Administration Wednesday, complaining about White House stonewalling at every turn and raising the prospect of seeking an extension of his December 31 deadline. After a day of testimony from the director of the Clinton legal defense fund, Michael Cardozo, Thompson stepped in front of the microphones in the hallway of the Hart Senate Office Building hearing room to deliver his harshest criticisms of the White House to date.
Thompson said, of the White House, that the committee had "made a mistake in trying to be fair to them." He complained that the committee has repeatedly deposed witnesses only to have the White House release documents relevant to the deposition after the interviews were conducted. That fits a general pattern of White House delay and obstruction. Thompson said the committee would now issue its first subpoena on the White House. "Suffice to say," intoned a sober Thompson, "they have not operated in good faith."
What set the chairman off was the White House provided records showing that Charlie Trie sugar daddy and Macua business tycoon Ng Lap Seng (a.k.a. Mr. Wu) had visited the White House more than 10 times. This disclosure came the day after FBI agent Jerry Campane testified about his investigation of Trie and Wu—an obvious attempt by the White House to provide the information (requested in May) when it would be least helpful to the committee. "We are not going to tolerate that," said Thompson.
It's now that Thompson may be able to cash in on all his bi-partisan cooperation with Democrats in previous months (significantly, Thompson noted the Dec. 31 deadline in his comments in a context that suggests he clearly thinks it was a mistake). The bi-partisan credentials give Thompson the credibility with the media to make a convincing case against White House obstruction. And it also helps that his movie-star demeanor is absolutely perfect for such a high-profile confrontation.
The disclosure of Wu's White House visits is especially significant because he had funneled nearly $1 million in foreign money to Trie, and also had a seat on a board that advised the Chinese government and Communist Party. Wu makes a more likely agent of influence than Trie, who it was revealed today walked into the offices of Michael Cardozo with a shopping bag full of checks and—get this—various trinkets, including a whoopee cushion! (Trie wanted to market the things and hoped Cardozo could help him.)
Cardozo told of how Trie called him in March 1996 to set up a meeting, then showed up at his offices with a manila envelope stuffed full of $1,000 checks and money orders. It all added up to a $460,000 contribution Trie wanted to give to the legal defense fund. Trie would show up again a couple of weeks earlier with the aforementioned bursting shopping bag: "I said to myself," Cardozo testified today, "`Oh my god, he's got a million dollars this time."
At the same time Trie was hauling in the huge contributions he was meeting with White House operator Mark Middleton (who says he won't cooperate with the committee). Middleton, at the time working out of his consultancy, forwarded to the White House a letter Trie wrote to Clinton on China policy at the time of the Chinese-Taiwan crisis. The letter is barely literate, yet somehow managed to rate the attention of National Security Advisor Tony Lake and the President himself. For a brief history of the correspondence, including Trie's letter and the president's response, click here.
Cardozo said that the Trie checks and money orders raised immediate suspicions, especially considering some of them were written out in the same hand writing and, upon further examination, came from members of a religious cult. Cardozo talked to other trustees about the matter and also had meetings in the White House about the Trie contributions—and ultimately all the funds were returned.
But Republicans were quick to point out that there were troubling aspects to how the Trie matter was handled. When Cardozo hired investigators to look into the contributions, he told them not to do a background check on Trie himself, because Trie had represented himself as a friend of the President. When the contributions were returned, it was with a letter informing the would-be contributors that they were welcome to send their checks back in if they did indeed meet the eligibility requirement (more than $100,000-worth of checks were re-submitted—only to be re-returned). And the trust fund fiddled with its biennial report, to keep the massive amount of returned contributions from going public.
Overall, it is turning out to be a pretty good week for Republicans. Thompson's comments should make news, and it turns out that Tuesday's testimony from Campane got good coverage—front-page treatment in the Washington Post and New York Times today and stories (albeit later in the shows) on all three networks. The committee will hear more about Charlie Trie Thursday.
Since nobody thinks ex-Gov. William Weld (R., Mass.) is going to overcome Sen. Jesse Helms's (R., N.C.) opposition to his nomination as ambassador to Mexico, the Beltway speculation has been that he's positioning himself for a run at the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 or even 2004. But what if that's not his game after all? Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation has a plausible theory: this fight is the prelude to Weld's switching parties. "His whole persona is quitting," says Wittmann. "Quitting the Justice Department, quitting the Governor's office. So now it's time to quit the Republican Party." Wittmann even has a photo-op in mind: Weld should make the announcement in Boston Harbor on the U.S.S. Constitution with President Clinton and Vice President Gore. "He could say, 'Just as the Constitution has been restored so has the Democratic Party. And the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan has been betrayed by the party of Helms and Gingrich.'" Like Reagan, he could say that he hadn't left the party; the party had left him.
If this scenario were to unfold, Weld would be the most prominent party-switcher in modern times—and he'd be going against the flow of the last two decades. Weld's defection would be a major psychological blow to the Republicans, and Democrats and the press would have a field day with the notion that "centrists" like Weld were no longer welcome in the G.O.P. Weld would be perfectly positioned—not for the Republican presidential nomination, which there's no chance of him getting, but for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 2000.
Concludes Wittmann: "If this is not [the Administration's] plan, they're disappointing me."
For a selection of recent Washington Bulletins click here