Democrats, in their drive toward impeachment, charge that President Trump withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine until Kyiv agreed to launch an investigation into potential corruption involving former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and to conduct an inquiry into Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
But there was a much earlier — and more blatant — episode, this time with a Democratic president demanding a clear quid pro quo from a desperate foreign leader.
In the spring of 1996, President Clinton was seeking reelection when he met in Egypt with Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader who was also facing a tough reelection battle.
A leaked memorandum of conversation obtained by The Washington Times found that Mr. Clinton pressured the Russian leader by offering U.S. political support for Mr. Yeltsin’s reelection — with just one catch: Russia first had to lift a ban on U.S. chicken imports, imposed over concerns that the poultry was tainted with bad bacteria.
“This is a big issue, especially since about 40% of U.S. poultry is produced in Arkansas,” Mr. Clinton told the Russian leader in Sharm el-Sheikh. “An effort should be made to keep such things from getting out of hand.”
Mr. Clinton did not mention that most of that Arkansas chicken was produced by Tyson Foods Inc., whose chairman, Don Tyson, was a close friend and political supporter. Mr. Tyson owned the $4 billion company, which was the world’s leading chicken processor.
Mr. Yeltsin agreed to the request. He told the president: “A leader of international stature such as President Clinton should support Russia, and that meant supporting Boris Yeltsin. Thought should be given to how to do that wisely.”
Critics say the differing responses to Mr. Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s presidential horse trading show a double standard by current House Democratic leaders.
“The idea that the very act of negotiating would be impeachable requires such a complete lack of historic knowledge that it is a little hard to believe that even [House intelligence committee Chairman Adam B.] Schiff thinks it is real,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican. “We are watching a pretext for a predetermined outcome.”
The chicken dispute was later made part of talks between then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Days after the March 13, 1996, presidential meeting, Mr. Gore announced that Russia had lifted the chicken ban.
The meeting came to be known in Washington circles as the “Chicken Summit” and highlighted for critics how Mr. Clinton was willing to play fast and loose with policy with a major foreign power to boost the market for tainted chicken exports for one of his longtime political donors.
But the leak of the confidential memorandum to this reporter prompted no impeachment inquiry by Congress, as occurred after the recent telephone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Instead, the Clinton White House ordered the FBI to investigate the leak of the confidential memo and denied the president had gone to bat for a longtime friend and political supporter and his chicken business.
Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary at the time, did not deny the exchange, but he said it was “inaccurate” to assert that Mr. Clinton promised to shade U.S. policies toward Russia in exchange for lifting the chicken import ban.
Strobe Talbott, a deputy secretary of state under Mr. Clinton, argued in a 2002 book that The Washington Times scoop offered a “distorted and damaging story” about the exchange between the presidents.
“While Clinton was indeed advancing American commercial interests and doing so on behalf of a company in his home state, the notion that he either intended or implied a threat of withholding support for Yeltsin if Russia didn’t ease the import restrictions was nonsense,” Mr. Talbott wrote.
In another parallel to current events, the Clinton White House and Congress sparred furiously over the investigation itself.
Three powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman William Clinger, sought to investigate the reports of chicken diplomacy. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, denounced what he called the president’s use of diplomacy “to serve anyone’s reelection campaign.”
But the congressional inquiry was hampered by the failure of the White House to provide documents — similar to impeachment charges that Mr. Trump obstructed the Democrats’ inquiry.
The Russian government demanded that the U.S. government halt what a spokesman said were “provocative” leaks of private discussions.
Mr. Tyson had been a close Clinton friend for more than 10 years and provided private jet travel and other perks when Mr. Clinton was governor of Arkansas from 1979 to 1981 and again from 1983 to 1992. He told The Washington Post that he and his associates made no secret of thousands of dollars in political donations to Clinton election campaigns.
Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, said the Clinton-Yeltsin exchange is similar to Mr. Trump’s case.
“It goes to show that virtually all foreign exchange involves quid pro quo, and presidents typically conduct policy with an eye on politics,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It further demonstrates that today’s pearl-clutching about foreign interference in elections conveniently omits various instances of meddling in other countries’ elections by American presidents and members of Congress.”
Mr. Clinton was impeached in 1998 — not for the Chicken Summit offer but for perjury and obstruction of justice regarding a sex scandal. He was not convicted in the Senate.
Mr. Trump’s defenders also point to a March 2012 incident when President Obama was heard on a hot mic telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he could shift U.S. policy in a direction more favorable to Moscow if he won a second term that November.
“This is my last election,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev. “After my election, I’ll have more flexibility.”
The “flexibility” was a reference to Russia’s demands to limit U.S. missile defenses, specifically plans to deploy anti-missile interceptors in Europe that Moscow regarded as threats to Russian offensive missile forces.
“That certainly was a lot bigger promise than anything Trump has done in Ukraine,” Mr. Gingrich said.
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