The double standard of today’s politics is instantiated in those people who are so willing to call out Donald Trump for his malfeasance and lies (and there are many), and even laugh at naked statues of the man, while at the same time excusing Hillary Clinton’s numerous ethical breaches. “I’m with her!”, the saying goes. Well, my stand is—especially in light of the continuing revelations about Hillary’s shady behavior—”I’ll vote for her, but that’s about it.” I’m not going to talk about the email business, though I think she dissimulated there, but want to discuss the Clinton Foundation (CF), about which there are increasing revelations of “conflict of interest” behavior. In particular, there are new reports that Clinton, while Secretary of State, gave preference, both in terms of access and favors, to CF donors. There are further reports (see my post from two days ago) that the CF broke its promise to identify donors, as well its promises to restrict foreign donations and get State Department approval for all of them.
Last week Bill Clinton announced that he’d step down from the CF board were Hillary elected as President, though we now know from NPR that Chelsea will not. In the meantime, donors can still pump money into the CF anticipating, based on the new reports (see below) that they might get favors or meetings if Hillary were elected. Further, if Hillary wins, the CF won’t accept any corporate or foreign donations. But until she does, in November, the donors can keep swelling the $2 billion coffers of the Foundation. Bill should get off the board now, and then, if she loses (unlikely), he can get back on.
Before I summarize the latest Associated Press analysis of donations, let me add that there is absolutely no question that the CF does great things. Although their structure of charity work is unusual (they don’t take grant requests, but disperse the money on their own volition), the money is largely used for good things—education, eradication of disease, clean water, and so on—and most of the money does go to this work. The question is not about the Foundation’s work itself, but how donations to it may have bought donors access to Hillary Clinton, even when she was Secretary of State.
Now the defenses of Hillary (and Bill) on this issue run along four lines:
- Every politician does stuff like this; it’s just business as usual. My response: no they don’t. Obama doesn’t have the long, shady history of mendacity that plagues both Hillary and Bill Clinton. Besides, are we really going to lower our standards for politicians every time there’s some shady dealing revealed by a politician we like?
- It’s a “vast right wing conspiracy” against Hillary. She’s being singled out! I have no doubt that some of the opposition to Clinton is based on sexism, just as some of the opposition to Obama was because he’s half black. But that doesn’t explain why a) Trump is being vetted (and excoriated) even more strongly than Clinton, and b) the organs that have investigated Clinton include not only a Democratic Justice Department, but, more important, liberal news media like the New York Times, NPR, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post. If you think those are part of the “right wing conspiracy”, you’re nuts. The main focus on Clinton derives from one thing: her long history of questionable behavior, when, probably because of the Clintons’ feelings of entitlement, Hillary often skirted ethical norms. (I’ll mention only once her repeated lies about being under fire in Bosnia. Brian Williams was fired as the anchorman for NBC News for making a very similar false claim, as NBC thought the lie had permanently damaged his integrity.)
- Clinton hasn’t done anything illegal, so it’s all okay! Seriously? The Justice Department admitted that Clinton’s behavior with respect to her email was wrong, but didn’t rise to the standards of a prosecutable offense. The pattern of donations to the CF being associated with Hillary giving face time to or doing favors for donors (see below) is deeply suspicious, though none of that is a tit-for-tat prosecutable offense, either. But again, is this the hill you want to die on for Hillary? The whole issue of “conflict of interest”, in which politicians are supposed to behave in a way that minimizes conflicts between their personal interests and their political behavior, is one of abiding to high standards, not just “not breaking the law.” In my view, every member of the Clinton Family—Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea—should have stepped off the board the minute Hillary formulated plans to run for President. That’s not the way it worked: only Hillary did that, and only because the public outcry had she not would have been a serious stain on her candidacy.
- The Clintons don’t benefit personally from the CF, so what’s the big deal? A claim like this is based on ignorance. First of all, the Clintons get power: the ability to get people to do what they want. Second, they get people sucking up to them for political access. Third, they get public promotions, the kind of high-profile presence that brings them big private income, and travel expenses. As NBC reports, Bill Clinton earned 17.6 million dollars in only five years as “honorary chancellor” of the world’s biggest for-profit education company, Laureate Education, Inc. Apparently all he had to do was travel the world extolling the company, giving speeches. (Remember, too, that Hillary continues to criticize for-profit universities.) And the money wasn’t for the Foundation, but for the Clintons themselves. The high profile of the Clinton Foundation certain enhances that kind of moneymaking ability. I’m not suggesting, of course, that the CF was set up just as a way for the Clintons to make personal income; just that the Foundation gives them cachet that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and contributes to their high profile.
Finally, if you don’t buy any of my counterarguments, ask yourself this: Why, if everything’s copacetic, did the Foundation suddenly announce that Bill would step off the Board if Hillary is elected, and that they’d take no more foreign or corporate donations? There are two answers: the first is they realized what they should have done all along: avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. The second is that Hillary and/or Bill realized that this would hurt her candidacy if they didn’t do it, and, believe me, Hillary wants the Presidency more than a starving lion wants a zebra.
But on to the latest reports from that important organ of The Right Wing Conspiracy: The Associated Press. After investigating donors to the CF and lists of people who got to talk to her while she was Secretary of State, the AP notes a disturbing pattern of people getting access to Hillary while she was Secretary after they made big donations to the Foundation. (This puts the lie to the claim that she doesn’t know who gives money to the Foundation). The AP report says this in part:
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.
Donors who were granted time with Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladesh government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran; a Wall Street executive who sought Clinton’s help with a visa problem; and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.
They are among at least 85 of 154 people with private interests who either met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton and also gave to her family’s charities, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. The 154 does not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives.
The AP’s findings represent the first systematic effort to calculate the scope of the intersecting interests of Clinton foundation donors and people who met personally with Clinton or spoke to her by phone about their needs.
The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton. Her calendars and emails released as recently as this week describe scores of contacts she and her top aides had with foundation donors.
Now one person wrote on my FB page, “But half the donors didn’t get access to Hillary.” That’s fatuous, of course. First of all, a lot of donors probably didn’t ask for access to Hillary. The real question to be answered is this: Among all people seeking access to or favors from Clinton as Secretary of State, was the proportion of CF donors who were successful higher than the proportion of non-donors who were successful? My guess is that the donors got an advantage.
The Clinton campaign has of course fought back, denying that there was any tit for tat here, but of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? They can hardly say otherwise. (The State Department has also said it’s not aware of any illegal acts performed by Hillary as Secretary of State in conjunction with the Foundation.) But of course imagine how difficult it would be to prove tit for tat! That’s why we have to avoid its appearance, pure and simple.
You can read the AP report yourself, and dismiss it if you’re One of Those, but it’s disturbing to anyone who’s not off the rails. (NPR also reports that “Released emails have shown some efforts to connect donors or associates at the foundation to personnel at the State Department.”). The AP also gives several examples of potential tit-for-tat behavior by Hillary as Secretary of State. Here’s one:
In another case, Clinton was host at a September 2009 breakfast meeting at the New York Stock Exchange that listed Blackstone Group chairman Stephen Schwarzman as one of the attendees. Schwarzman’s firm is a major Clinton Foundation donor, but he personally donates heavily to GOP candidates and causes. The next day, according to Clinton emails, the State Department was working on a visa issue at Schwarzman’s request. In December that same year, Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, sat at Clinton’s table during the Kennedy Center Honors.
Blackstone donated between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Eight Blackstone executives also gave between $375,000 and $800,000 to the foundation. And Blackstone’s charitable arm has pledged millions of dollars in commitments to three Clinton Global aid projects ranging from the U.S. to the Mideast. Blackstone officials did not make Schwarzman available for comment.
Do you seriously think there’s no connection here? The problem, of course, is proving that there was a direct relationship between donations and access. That would be very hard to do without a paper trail. I think the data suggest that strongly, but of course diehard Hillary fans say, “She was never proven to have done anything illegal.” That’s a pretty low bar for supporting a Presidential candidate, n’est-ce pas?
In my view, every Clinton should get off the board now, even though some damage has already been done. They should have nothing to do with the Clinton Foundation until no Clinton holds public office. I don’t think the CF should be shut down, as some have suggested, for it does good work. It should simply become a “blind charity,” having no connection with the Clintons except in name, until Bill, Chelsea, and Hillary once again become private citizens.