When Hillary Clinton left the State Department, in 2013, she put her name on the William J. Clinton Foundation. She didn’t have to do it; she had a résumé that required no institutional validation. Now, as she prepares for a possible Presidential campaign, she has to deal with half a dozen new reports on the finances of the Bill, Hillary, & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. In the latest, the foundation acknowledged to the Washington Post that it violated an ethics-review agreement with the State Department by taking half a million dollars from the government of Algeria for Haitian earthquake relief. At the time, Algeria was spending hundred of thousands of dollars to lobby the State Department. The foundation, in its response, said that its donor’s motivation was addressing “critical global challenges.” Algeria just wanted to help Haiti.
The first round of stories, in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post last week, also had to do with the money that the Clinton Foundation took from foreign governments—more than twenty-five million dollars from the Dutch national lottery, between ten and twenty-five million from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an unspecified amount of that in 2014. A few days later, the Wall Street Journal did some rough connecting of three dots: first, corporate donations to Clinton-linked charities; second, the lobbying disclosures by those donor-corporations; third, Hillary Clinton’s travels and initiatives as Secretary of State. “At least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation,” it found. While Clinton was “pushing governments to sign deals and change policies to the advantage of corporate giants such as General Electric Co., Exxon Mobil Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co.,” all were among the foundation’s donors. ExxonMobil gave about two million dollars to the Clinton Global Initiative, after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State. It gave more than sixteen million dollars to Vital Voices, a charity she co-founded, which promotes women in leadership around the world.
The Journal says that it did not find evidence of a quid pro quo, or any illegality. There are only narratives—Clinton “went to bat” for Boeing in Moscow; Russia bought planes; Boeing made a donation. A Boeing spokeswoman told the Journal that advocating for businesses is what the State Department was supposed to do. The Clinton Foundation, in a statement last Thursday, said, “Contributions are made because the Foundation’s programs improve the lives of millions of people around the globe.”
The foundation does improve lives. But so do a lot of other charities. Why did Algeria or ExxonMobil choose to give this money here? Are the pictures in the annual reports, and at the meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative, more wrenching than in the marketing materials of any other charity, to the point of softening the King of Saudi Arabia’s heart? The Clintons might at least concede the personality-driven nature of the transaction.
When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, the Obama Administration asked the foundation to stop soliciting new donations from foreign governments. It agreed, and then, after she left office, without announcing it, started going out and soliciting from those sources again. Those foreign governments know that Hillary Clinton is almost certainly running for President, as does the rest of the world. In its statement last week, though, the foundation said, “Should Secretary Clinton decide to run for office, we will continue to ensure the Foundation’s policies and practices regarding support from international partners are appropriate, just as we did when she served as Secretary of State”—that is, not yet.
And the new Washington Post story shows the limits of that “just as we did when she served as Secretary of State.” The Clintons’ ethics agreement allowed existing donors to keep giving, with clearance from the State Department. And so the foundation “accepted millions of dollars from seven foreign governments during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.” The countries were Algeria, Australia, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Norway, Oman, and Qatar. The Post noted that, in the same period, Qatar “spent more than $5.3 million on registered lobbyists.” The foundation, in its response, said that its donors’ motivation was addressing the world’s problems “in a meaningful way.”
As John Cassidy recently wrote, much of the foundation’s work involves not direct programs (although, along with its affiliates, it does those, too): “Instead, it identifies specific challenges somewhere in the world, solicits commitments from governments and nongovernmental organizations to meet them, finds corporate sponsors willing to finance the projects, and undertakes to help out with expertise, contacts, and encouragement.” This means that a lot of its charitable work consists of making and maintaining connections—like an investment bank, Cassidy says. The foundation’s leveraging, though, adds another step that can remove transparency and make it harder for outsiders to get a clear idea of who might be obligated to whom. It also multiplies the amount of money involved. The Journal noted, in its story on the sixty lobbyist-donor companies, “At least 44 of those 60 companies also participated in philanthropic projects valued at $3.2 billion that were set up though a wing of the foundation called the Clinton Global Initiative, which coordinates the projects but receives no cash for them.”
The Clinton Foundation talks about how it is more transparent, as a charity, than it legally needs to be. But it is not a normal charity, in its resources or its functions. The argument in defense of all this is that, if Bill and Hillary have been clumsy, the only ones who have gained anything are the neediest people in the world. (“If the biggest attack on Hillary’s going to be that she raised too much money for her charity, okay, I’ll take that,” Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia and a longtime Clinton associate, told the Post.) In other words, the Clintons owe their donors nothing—they’ve peddled only their charm and their glamour, not their influence. But the foundation also propagates the Clinton brand (Chelsea is vice-chair), and is a place to keep people close and form more connections, or, perhaps, entanglements. One is left hoping that the Clintons are exceptionally ungrateful to their donors.
All this seems terribly unnecessary. The foundation does a lot of good, and can do more; so can the Clintons, with all their fine talents and intentions, in and out of office. Why push for the marginal, possibly questionable donation or favor, particularly given the scrutiny of a potential campaign? But then, that has always been the mystery of the Clintons.
The stories do not feel exhaustive. There will be questions about other ways in which the extensive foreign travels in which Clinton took such pride as Secretary of State may have doubled as donor-development drives for the foundation. Democrats may decide not to worry, figuring that the Republican candidate is bound to have his own compromising financial connections. That’s a somewhat sad surrender. When questions about possible improprieties come up, those around the Clintons tend to say that no two people have ever been as vetted as they have, and that was true—around 1998. Pictures can change, with one day or one deal. As far as the Journal could tell, the 2014 donor numbers have not been completely disclosed, and we are two months into 2015. It’s not just the foundation: more stories will be written about paid speeches and consulting contracts. (Politico had one on Wednesday.) A year ago, a Washington Post accounting showed that Bill Clinton had been paid more than a hundred million dollars for speeches since leaving office. Hillary has since begun giving her own paid speeches. They’ve said that they donate some of that money to the foundation. Lately, the whole family seems to be gathering up as much as it can before she declares her candidacy and the family really does have to stop.
It is past the time for it to stop. The out-of-government, non-candidate fiction has, at this point, run too thin, with a campaign staff being more or less openly mustered. There is surely a way for the Clintons to do good without compromising themselves and the Democrats’ 2016 prospects.