Somehow, we have a pay-for-play scandal without either pay or play.
[You can think of this article as a sequel to “About Those Emails“.]
Most of the articles about the possible conflicts-of-interest involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation dive right in to some set of details: Somebody wrote an email to somebody else, and then something did (or did not) happen, maybe (or maybe not) because of some other consideration.
But before we go there, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and observe how bizarre this whole controversy is: It’s being billed as a pay-for-play scandal, but two essential items are missing:
- pay: No one has yet postulated any credible mechanism by which money from the Clinton Foundation gets back to the Clintons. A considerable sum ($4.3 million, according to The Washington Post) has flowed from the Clintons to the Foundation, but nothing in the other direction.
- play: There are no specific examples of a Foundation donor receiving some inappropriate government concession , and no examples of someone who was denied something, then contributed to the Foundation and got it.
None of the Clintons — not even Chelsea — draws a salary from the Foundation or gets reimbursed for expenses. The Foundation doesn’t own mansions the Clintons live in or fleets of cars or planes to take them places. It doesn’t fund their political campaigns or buy their books or pay them speaking fees. It just does charitable work, spending a remarkable 88% of its money on programs and only 12% on overhead.
So trying to bribe Hillary Clinton by giving money to the Clinton Foundation is a lot like trying to bribe the mayor of your town by giving money to the local United Way drive, or to the hospital that has a wing named for his family. You can hope that the mayor hears about your donation and thinks good thoughts about you, but you’re not paying him off in any meaningful sense.
On the “play” side of the so-called scandal, two recent developments have been presented by the media as raising suspicions, when it’s not clear why they should: State Department emails released by a conservative organization, and an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s schedule as Secretary of State by the Associated Press.
Paul Waldman of the WaPo’s Plum Line blog summarizes what we learned from the emails:
Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.
The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.
Judicial Watch presumably highlighted the worst examples it could find, and came up with these (summarized by Waldman):
- A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. [Top Clinton assistant Huma] Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
- Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
- The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.
Unless you find it unusual or inappropriate for a Secretary of State to meet with the crown prince of an important ally in the Middle East, there’s literally nothing to see here.
Then we get to the AP article.
At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.
That sounds really damning. I mean, 85 out of 154 is more than half. But there’s a problem with AP’s whole project. By limiting themselves to counting “people from private interests”, AP right at the start eliminates the vast majority of Clinton’s meetings, which are necessarily with people in the U.S. government or foreign governments. If you look at her whole schedule, those 85 donors are not 85 out of 154, they’re 85 out of well over a thousand.
And who are they? As Matt Yglesias points out, all the specific examples AP comes up with seem to be people the Secretary of State ought to be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, people running charitable operations in foreign countries, and so on. Yglesias acknowledges the potential for sinister conflicts of interest when the State Department dealt with Clinton Foundation donors, but says the real story is that a major news organization invested a lot of time in this story and didn’t find anything.
Conceivably, there still might be a scandal here, among the people Clinton didn’t meet with: You could imagine equally deserving people who didn’t get through the door because they weren’t Foundation donors. But again, AP does not produce examples. If they looked for such people, they appear not to have found any.
There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. [AP reporters] Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.
… The real news here ought to be just the opposite [of a scandal]: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.
So let’s summarize: While Hillary was Secretary of State, rich and influential people gave money to the Clinton Foundation. That money went off to plant trees in Malawi or install solar panels in Haiti or construct playgrounds in Los Angeles, and in no way made it back to Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton. In exchange for your contribution, you could call up Huma Abedin and ask for the State Department to do you a favor, but as best anybody can tell, unless you had that service coming anyway you wouldn’t get it. Or you could ask to meet with Secretary Clinton, but unless you had legitimate State Department business to discuss with her, you wouldn’t get in.
That’s the pay-for-play scandal.
 The example that sticks in everybody’s mind is the one involving Russian interests buying Canadian uranium mines. For complicated reasons, the U.S. State Department had to sign off on that deal, along with nine other government agencies that weren’t under Clinton’s control. People interested in the sale donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation — mostly well before the sale was negotiated — and the sale went through.
That sequence of events sounded suspicious when Peter Schweizer called attention to it in his book Clinton Cash, and over the last year and a half a lot of effort has gone into trying to make something out of it. But no one has been able to add anything substantive to the story; the juiciest details in the book turned out not to be true, and the author eventually admitted that he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Paul Waldman summarizes everything that was known about this as of April, 2015, and PolitiFact discussed it this June. I don’t know of any developments since.