The New Clinton Allegations: Fog or Smoke?

This week the pre-publication publicity for the book Clinton Cash began, and at least one of the claims it makes — that a State Department decision made while Hillary Clinton was Secretary might have been influenced by large contributions to the Clinton Foundation — was picked up by the New York Times. And that raised the question: Is this the kind of fog routinely pumped out by political operations to raise an opponent’s FUD factor, or is this smoke that indicates some kind of fire?

Political cartoonists saw it both ways.

and

Which way is right? If we’re just talking about Clinton Cash, the answer seems clear: It’s a political attack that you shouldn’t take too seriously. But the NYT is harder to write off.

Clinton Cash. The author, Peter Schweizer, is a former Bush speechwriter and the coauthor of Bobby Jindal’s autobiography. He has a history of making sensational claims that don’t pan out. [1] And he doesn’t even claim to have solid evidence of any wrong-doing on the part of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. As ThinkProgress summarizes:

Schweizer makes clear that he does not intend to present a smoking gun, despite the media speculation. The book relies heavily on timing, stitching together the dates of donations to the Clinton Foundation and Bill Clinton’s speaking fees with actions by the State Department.

Even if nothing is wrong, suspicious timing is an easy case to make, because the apex of the power-and-money pyramid is a small world. The kind of people who have money to give to foundations and/or political campaigns are also the kind of people that government regulations are trying to control. So if you cast your net wide enough, you will inevitably find sequences where a gift of some sort is followed by a favorable decision of some sort. The question is whether the two are related. This situation has come up so frequently for so long that both possibilities have Latin names. If they are related, it’s quid pro quo. If they’re not but you assume they are, it’s the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

And whether it is involved in anything nefarious or not, the Clinton Foundation was always going to be a conservative target. The Clintons can rightfully be proud of the good work done by the Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, so Republicans would naturally want to make those political assets unusable. That strategy goes back to Karl Rove: Try to turn your opponents strengths into weaknesses. (Example: the swiftboat attack on John Kerry’s military record.)

So although long-time Clinton-haters will want to distribute Schweizer’s book to all their friends, if you’re a Clinton supporter wondering if you should reconsider, or an uncommitted voter considering Hillary as a possible president, Clinton Cash by itself should not figure in your calculations. This kind of book was bound to be written whether there’s any genuine issue or not.

But the NYT deserves more attention.

The uranium company. The Times looks at one example from Schweizer’s book, concerning a Canadian uranium-mining company that owned properties in both Kazakhstan and the United States. It’s a complicated story that takes place over many years: The Canadian company UrAsia Energy, which was run by a friend of Bill Clinton and a long-time Clinton Foundation supporter, bought mines in Kazakhstan, merged with the South African company Uranium One, and then was bought out by the Russian national mining company Rosatom. The final transaction required the approval of several government agencies in Canada, the U.S., and probably some other countries. One of the needed U.S. approvals came from the State Department, while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. All through this period, the Clinton friend was giving large contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and many of his executives and business partners were as well, for a total in the millions of dollars. (See the timeline.)

And there’s another entanglement:

And shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.

None of this in itself is illegal, and none of the individual pieces are even unusual. Other former presidents have leveraged their fame and connections to raise money for good causes, like the Carter Center or the Ford Institute. Other former presidents get large speaking fees, sometimes in circumstances that an uncharitable observer would see as suspicious. Relatives of other presidents or presidential candidates have had business relationships with people who may have hoped to gain political influence. [2]

Bill Clinton is different from other former presidents in two ways: The Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative are far larger than anything established by other presidents, and (through Hillary) Clinton still arguably affected government policy. Corporate money spent on previous presidents had sent a more indirect message to the currently powerful, (“Look how grateful we can be to leaders who are nice to us.”) rather than looking like a quid pro quo transaction.

What makes corruption? The seriousness of this story depends mainly on three questions:

  • Did the Clintons promise the uranium businessmen anything in return for their contributions and the speaking fee?
  • If they did promise something, did they deliver? In other words, is it possible to connect the dots from the businessmen to the foundation to Hillary to the State Department people who recommended approving the deal?
  • Should the State Department have blocked the deal? Does Rosatom owning uranium mines in the U.S. and Canada compromise American security? Or would torpedoing the deal have had negative affects elsewhere in our relations with Russia or other countries? (It’s also worth asking why the other relevant agencies approved the deal, or whether anybody lower in the State Department wanted to veto it.)

The NYT story provides no evidence that any of those question have a Yes answer. Maybe further digging will produce such evidence. But that’s speculative.

Another thing that would give this story legs is if the Clintons personally profit from their foundation in ways that weren’t already widely known. [3] Without such profit, we’ve got a story about trying to influence a politician by giving to her favorite charity. If someone tried to influence a feminist politician by giving a lot of money to the Girl Scouts, that wouldn’t feel like a serious corruption story.

Appearance and reality. The question that’s not speculative is: Why did Hillary let the appearance of corruption get this far? Or, as Amy Davidson put it in The New Yorker:

Are the Clintons correct in saying that there is an attack machine geared up to go after them? Of course. But why have they made it so easy?

Secretary Clinton was asked about precisely these kinds of conflicts-of-interest during her confirmation hearings, and she assured the Senate that she had an extensive full-disclosure agreement with President Obama, one that went far beyond what the law ordinarily requires of either foundations or government officials. (Steve Kornacki runs the tapes.) And yet the bulk of the uranium-related contributions weren’t disclosed.

Davidson goes through the details of the explanation of how this non-disclosure didn’t technically violate the full-disclosure agreement.

I also asked the foundation to explain its reasoning. The picture one is left with is convoluted and, in the end, more troubling than if the lapse had been a simple oversight. … That structural opacity calls the Clintons’ claims about disclosure into question. If the memorandum of understanding indeed allowed for that, it was not as strong a document as the public was led to believe—it is precisely the sort of entanglement one would want to know about.

In short, we’re back to what the meaning of is is. The non-disclosure is certainly a violation of the spirit of Hillary Clinton’s agreement with President Obama — as well as what she told the Senate — even if the letter of the agreement was somehow upheld.

Conclusions. If I had to pick one person as the sharpest talking-head on cable news, I think it would be MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki Here was his conclusion:

There is no smoking gun in anything that we learned today, and the Clintons are adamant that there is no there there. And it really might be as simple as that. But: There is the appearance of a conflict here, the possibility of a conflict. That’s what the reporting shows today. And that’s what Hillary said six years ago there wouldn’t be. There are questions here. There are difficult questions here, murky questions here, but legitimate questions.

And his guest Alex Seitz-Wald chimed in:

It’s hard to believe that these people are giving millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation without at least some of them thinking that they might curry some favor with the Clintons. Whether that favor was returned or not, we haven’t seen that. But it certainly creates this perception, and that’s a problem.

Legally, I’ll bet there turns out to be no issue: no indictments for bribery, perjury, or obstruction of justice. Politically, I think the outcome will boil down to Amy Davidson’s final question: “Is this cherry-picking or low-hanging fruit?” Or: after all the time and money spent on opposition research, is this the best anti-Hillary story her opponents have? If it is, she’ll be fine. But if this is just the appetizer, there might be a problem.


[1] If you look at the list of previous Schweizer claims, a pattern emerges: He finds something in the public record that makes you go “Hmmm.” And then (if it makes a Democrat look bad) he publishes a conclusion he draws from that finding, without doing even the simplest checking to see if there’s a real issue.

One example is the claim by Schweizer’s Government Accountability Institute that President Obama skips over half of his daily intelligence briefings. This claim became the basis of an attack ad against Obama, which The Washington Post fact-checked and called “bogus”.

The grain of truth at the bottom of the charge was that about half the time Obama prefers to read his daily intelligence briefing rather than have a face-to-face meeting. The GAI report was based on analyzing the president’s published schedules, which showed all the face-to-face meetings. On days without a scheduled meeting, Obama was “skipping” the briefing.

But every president does this differently, the WaPo said, concluding that “Under the standards of this ad, Republican icon Ronald Reagan skipped his intelligence briefings 99 percent of the time.”

Similarly, Schweizer used the president’s public schedules to claim that Obama had never met with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during the three years prior to the ObamaCare rollout. This claim also turned out to be bogus, for reasons anybody who watched The West Wing would easily understand: High officials go in and out of the Oval Office all the time without being on the schedule published in the morning.

[2] The earliest example I remember is Ronald Reagan taking $2 million for a 9-day speaking tour of Japan. Reagan’s free-trade policy and his opposition to protective tariffs had been very beneficial to Japanese corporations, which now had a chance to show future presidents how grateful they could be.

In addition to a few charitable enterprises, Gerald Ford’s post-presidency was occupied by serving on numerous corporate boards, from which he received a nice income for doing not particularly much.

These practices are not uniquely American, either. In 2009 The Guardian reported:

The former prime minister Tony Blair has received millions of pounds through an unusual mixture of commercial, charitable and religious income streams. Since he stepped down from office in 2007, his financial affairs have been described by observers as “Byzantine” and “opaque”.

As for the appearance of gaining influence through business dealings with a relative, George W. Bush’s business career was repeatedly saved from disaster by rich people who were politically connected to his father, and several of Tagg Romney‘s clients and partners also had political connections to Mitt. Whether or not these were attempts to curry favor through other means is in the eye of the beholder.

Or favors can appear to flow through a relative in the other direction. The International Business Times reports:

While Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, state pension officials committed at least $1.7 billion to financial firms whose executives were “Pioneer” fundraisers for his brother’s presidential campaigns. To achieve Pioneer status, the fundraisers had to amass at least $100,000 worth of bundled contributions to one of George W. Bush’s campaigns.

That could be corruption, or it could just be the small-world phenomenon: Lots of financial executives were Bush fund-raisers; if you distributed pension funds by throwing darts at the Yellow Pages, you’d probably hit some of their firms.

None of this excuses whatever the Clintons might or might not do. But we should not imagine that there is some unique “Clinton problem”.

[3] None of the articles I’ve seen mentioned whether any of the Clintons draw a salary for the foundation work they do, or if that compensation is reasonable. I suspect they don’t, but if you know, leave a comment.

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Comments

  • Abby hafer  On April 27, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    It appears to me that this possibility of conflict of interest comes nowhere near being as damning as George W. Bush’s building a stadium for the Texas Rangers with public money while he was simultaneously a part-owner of the Rangers, AND the governor of Texas. I continue to not understand why this is anything other than criminal.

    • weeklysift  On April 28, 2015 at 6:06 am

      I hate to defend W, but this time I have to. You can find the timeline at ESPN. The new stadium opened in April, 1994. Bush was elected governor the following November.

      Yes, he convinced the public to make him rich, and then they also elected him governor. But he didn’t get rich by being governor.

  • Anonymous  On May 2, 2015 at 9:50 am

    On the bigger point, I find almost imposable to imagine not voting for Mrs. Clinton in Nov 2016 – there almost certainly not enough there-there to justify voting for a any of the current Republicans, but as for whether not the Clinton’s personally profited, is that really the right question? I get the impression they have more than enough money so it doesn’t really matter anymore – but I suspect ego wise the foundation is a reasonable substitute.

Trackbacks

  • By The Horror | The Weekly Sift on April 27, 2015 at 10:56 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “The New Clinton Allegations: Fog or Smoke?“ […]

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