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In 1996, Johnny Chung, a Taiwanese-born California businessman, pleaded guilty to illegally funneling money from China to President Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee during Clinton’s re-election campaign.
Chung later testified before Congress that the donations included $35,000 from the head of China's military intelligence agency to Clinton’s successful reelection effort.
The FBI even warned six members of Congress at the time: "We have reason to believe that the government of China may try to make contributions to members of Congress through Asian donors."
Attempting to downplay Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, in which Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Priebus said such interloping has been done for years by other countries, as well.
Trump has said, Priebus told host Chris Wallace, that Russia "probably meddled in the election, they did meddle in the election."
Priebus continued: "The one thing that he also says -- which drives the media crazy, but it’s an absolute fact -- is that others have as well, and that's true. China has, North Korea has and they have consistently over many, many years."
The White House didn’t reply to our emails seeking information to back Priebus’ statement.
But experts told us that, aside from the Chung affair, there is no evidence that China -- and certainly not North Korea -- have meddled in American elections.
And what U.S. intelligence agencies say the Russians did is far different from the Chung matter.
Here is how the agencies began their key findings on Russian meddling in a January 2017 report:
Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort compared to previous operations.
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
As has been widely reported, Russian hackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and gave them to WikiLeaks. Russian actors gained access to several states’ electoral agencies.
Experts believe that Russia was behind a misinformation and propaganda campaign pushing exaggerated or false stories that would spread on social media and get picked up by English-language conspiratorial websites.
Most recently, in July 2017, it was reported that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian agent who had promised to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and that the president's son knew the allegedly incriminating information was being peddled by the highest levels of the Russian government in order to support the Trump campaign.
China and North Korea
The dozen experts we contacted said they were aware of no evidence to back Priebus’ claim, or were aware only of the Chung matter.
In the Chung case, money was inappropriately or illegally given to a candidate’s campaign account. Priebus’ claim suggests a much broader and government-orchestrated foreign effort, on par with the Russian one.
"It’s possible there is some classified intelligence report on China and North Korea and U.S. elections, but I have never heard this claim before, nor seen any evidence," said University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Yoshiko Herrera, who is the former director of the school’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia.
"Also, I think for both China and North Korea, they see little difference between U.S. presidential candidates, but rather think of American politicians in general as opposed to China’s or North Korea’s interests, so I don’t know what the motivation for meddling in elections would be."
Indeed, Priebus’ claim struck some experts as bizarre.
"I have never heard this charge before," said political science professor Robert Ross, an associate at the Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.
Experts on North Korea were more blunt.
"This notion that North Korea meddles in American elections is completely baseless," said Mitchell Lerner, director of the Institute for Korean Studies at Ohio State University.
"It’s sort of a stunning assertion," said Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York. "I just don’t know where it’s coming from. There certainly is no evidence for it."
Speaking to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Priebus said: "It's an absolute fact" that China and North Korea "have consistently over many, many years" meddled in U.S. elections.
During President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, money from Chinese citizens, including the head of China’s military agency, was illegally funneled to the reelection effort.
But there is no evidence that either China or North Korea -- consistently and over many years -- meddled in U.S. elections. And certainly nothing on the scale of the Russian efforts in the 2016 presidential race, which reached to the highest levels of the Russian government.
We rate Priebus’ statement False.
Fox News, "Fox News Sunday" Reince Priebus interview (4:25), July 9, 2017
PolitiFact National, "17 intelligence organizations or 4? Either way, Russia conclusion still valid," July 6, 2017
Interview, Mitchell Lerner, associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Korean Studies at Ohio State University and associate editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, July 12, 2017
Interview, Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, July 12, 2017
Email, Columbia University professor of Korean studies in the social sciences Charles Armstrong, July 11, 2017
Email, University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Yoshiko Herrera, former director of the school’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia, July 11, 2017
Email, Asian security professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies Mohan Malik, July 11, 2017
Email, Robert Ross, associate at the Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, July 12, 2017
Email, Mark Kramer, director of the Project on Cold War Studies at the Harvard University Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, July 12, 2017
Email, Evans J.R. Revere, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, July 12, 2017
Email, East-West Center senior fellow Denny Roy, July 12, 2017
Sydney Morning Herald, "The go-betweens," 2017
Los Angeles Times, "Fallen but Now Full of Faith," July 13, 2003
Washington Post, "FBI Warned 6 on Hill About China Money," March 9, 1997
Washington Post, "1996 Fund-Raising Scandals Bring Stiff Penalty," Sept. 21, 2002
Las Vegas Review-Journal, "Hearings on Clinton-China connection hauntingly familiar to Russia probe," June 11, 2017
Email, Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, July 12, 2017
Email, University of California, San Diego political economy professor Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese banking policies, fiscal policies and exchange rates, July 12, 2017
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