Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 18 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       After two weeks of partisan spitballs, open warfare has broken out. The proximate cause of the hostilities was the Republican decision to call as today's chief witness one of their own lawyers, a handsome young man named John Cobb.
       Cobb had helped work up a series of display charts that attempted to illustrate John Huang's misdeeds at the Department of Commerce. The first of these boards purported to show "Huang's Access to Classified and Other Sensitive Information while at Commerce." Two more documented "Huang's Contacts with Lippo-Related Individuals" and "Huang's Contacts with Foreign & Multinational Entities while At Commerce." A final series of four suggestively illustrated "Huang Fundraising at Commerce?"
       These charts were intended to bring together the damning shards of evidence Republicans have spent the whole week unearthing. They were supposed to suggest that John Huang was a spy who was given extensive access to classified information as a result of carelessness or worse.
       The problem was that the Democrats don't think the Republicans have proven that case, or anything like it. The Democrats think they have pretty well established that Huang wasn't a spy at all. He didn't ask for the routine classified briefings he received at Commerce, and he apparently didn't do anything tricky to get a security clearance. Huang's use of what Republicans called a "secret office" at Stephens Inc., a Lippo-connected firm with offices across the street from the Commerce Department, may have been a perfectly innocent matter of leaving his office to make personal phone calls. And Huang almost certainly wasn't dropping off CIA reports on his trips to the Chinese or Indonesian embassies--he filed expense reports in order to get reimbursed by the government for his $5 taxi fares. As Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, stated, "If he was a spy, it's odd that he would leave not only a paper trail but a paper freeway. ... I would draw the inference that he was spectacularly inept. He couldn't have read one John Le Carré book."
       After Thad Cochran walked Cobb through the charts, Max Cleland, the freshman senator from Georgia, got the Democratic counterattack off to an emotional start. "Why are you here?" Cleland asked Cobb, who spent the next hour doing a good-natured imitation of a piñata. Cleland, who left three of his four limbs in Vietnam, said he had been wounded in the South China Sea, and that he had a big interest in finding out about the possibility of Chinese involvement in the 1996 election. "I am not interested in talking to a chart-maker when I can get the information myself," Cleland fumed.
       Sens. Torricelli and Levin then took up the cudgels. "Do you think this is honest?" Torricelli asked. "Do you think this is fair?" Cobb said quietly that he thought his charts were accurate. "The point stands that there is no better way to undermine the credibility of an inquiry than to overstate a serious case," Torricelli asserted. He then went on to understate the case, by repeating his favorite stupid point, that the two-and-a-half-minute average length of Huang's phone calls to the Lippo Bank meant that he couldn't have been doing anything wrong. Levin was the most shirty of all, reminding Cobb that he was under oath and decrying the "inferences" drawn by the Republicans.
       Levin and the Democrats have, of course, been drawing plenty of unwarranted "inferences" of their own. If there's no proof that Huang leaked classified information, there's no proof he didn't--and there are still strong grounds for suspicion. Most of the Democrats have been acting as defense attorneys just as surely as the Republicans have been playing the part of the prosecution. Sometimes the Democrats seem much worse. There has been nothing on the Republican side as obnoxiously partisan as the behavior of Lanny Davis, the White House scandal spokesman, who stands outside the hearing room and smarms reporters at every intermission with gobs of disingenuous spin. Davis constantly asserts that the Republicans have proven nothing at all, that all their news is old news, and that they are guilty of all the crimes with which they have charged the innocent Democrats. He's the boy who cried no wolf. If Lanny Davis said Clinton was innocent of something, and Clinton really was innocent, who would ever believe him?
       At a political level, the Democratic strategy has been fairly effective. The Republican approach seems an exercise in futility. Why spend a week building a circumstantial case that John Huang is a spy if you don't have any decent evidence that he was? I wonder whether Thompson and the Republicans even believe Huang did leak classified information. If they do, they haven't yet given spectators much of a basis for sharing their suspicions. Instead of proving that he was Alger Hiss, or even Maxwell Smart, they have made Huang look like a bumbling Martin Short.
       With the atmosphere thoroughly poisoned by Cobb's charts, the committee attempted to discuss the issue of granting immunity to four nuns who are alleged to have been mules in a money-laundering scheme engineered by Huang in connection with the infamous Al Gore-Buddhist Temple fund-raiser in Hacienda Heights, Calif. The nuns obviously should get immunity. Democrats have been stalling by hiding behind the objections of the Attorney General's Office--the details of which have not been made public.
       At the end of the afternoon, John Glenn--who is annoyed that the committee won't grant Huang immunity--was fishing for more reasons to delay an immunity vote on the nuns until next week. One side effect of this delay would be that Republicans wouldn't be able to call them as witnesses anytime soon. No doubt this is a coincidence. In any case, Glenn tried to claim that the committee couldn't vote on immunity because it hadn't yet received proffers--descriptions of forthcoming testimony--from the nuns the Republicans want to immunize. Mike Madigan, the chief counsel for the Republicans, said Glenn was wrong. The attorneys for the nuns had in fact sent proffers some time ago, and in one case, committee lawyers had already taken a deposition from "the little nun herself."
       "Careful, Mr. Madigan," Thompson said, arching an eyebrow.
       Madigan said he meant it literally. The nun he was talking about was minute, about 90 pounds and 4 feet 4. With the hearings thus degenerating, the senators went into executive session to squabble some more about immunity without the press watching. Unsurprisingly, Glenn wouldn't give in, so no nuns next week, or so it appears for now.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.