About the Foundation

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 [1], 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.

[1] 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.

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  • cgordon  On August 29, 2016 at 10:34 am

    Charitable organizations don’t have to disclose their donors. Many Republican political organizations register as charitable organizations so they can keep donors secret. The Clinton Foundation should get credit for transparency for disclosure in the first place.

    That said, the Clintons should turn over the Foundation to a trustee for the duration.

  • Josh  On August 29, 2016 at 11:31 am

    I think you could reasonably argue that a donation to the Clinton Foundation is still an indirect benefit to the Clinton family, even if the money doesn’t actually go into their pockets. Let’s say I win the Powerball and donate $100 million to the Clinton Foundation. They then take that money and spend $88 million planting trees in Malawi and installing solar panels in Haiti and building playgrounds in Los Angeles. The Clinton family then derives credit and reputational benefit from the good deeds that their Foundation is doing with the money I donated.

    I still think there’s no scandal, because I’m not getting anything in exchange for my donation, and, honestly, they probably deserve credit for good deeds done by a foundation (given an A rating by Charity Watch) that they established. But I think it’s probably a bit too narrowly focused to say that because they didn’t receive any tangible benefit from my donation, they therefore didn’t receive any benefit at all.

  • Tom H  On August 29, 2016 at 11:35 am

    “own mansions the….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”

    Sounds very Evangelical to me.

  • Ron  On August 29, 2016 at 11:59 am

    The key controversy as I see it was that the Clinton foundation allowed Hillary to retain her staff salaries while she was out of office. These same staff members will be more sympathetic to their foundation donors when Hillary places them in government jobs when she becomes President.

  • barczablog  On August 29, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    We live in a very sick time. Conversation, diplomacy, friendship do not necessarily require a quid pro quo. But when a society forgets how to be collegial? Then things begin to be suspicious looking, at least to those who no longer understand friendship and diplomacy.

  • cathy lockwood  On August 29, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    when you have powerful people go through the normal channels to get meeting with secretary of state and they are denied. Then they go through the foundation with donations and they get a meeting. That proves corruption even if Clinton supporters are to nieive to make the connection

    • weeklysift  On September 1, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      But do we have examples of that happening? I agree, that would be a legitimate story, but I know of no examples.

  • George Kramer  On August 30, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    I am donating money and volunteering to help HRC’s campaign.campaign. Still, I don’t think it is credible to maintain that she is ethically pure as the driven snow, and I think that whitewashing her screwups indirectly empowers those who would like to amplify them and then draw false equivalences between her and Trump. While her right-wing critics have spent years, and considerable taxpayer dollars (thanks Ken Starr and Select Committee on Benghazi) pursuing spurious and transparently political claims, the fact remains that in a number of instances her ethical instincts have been less than ideal. This article seems to me to go overboard to try to spin the Clinton Foundation story into insignificance, but it is not convincing. On its face it seems clear that donating to the Foundation was a very desirable, if not essential, prerequisite to getting face time with HRC or her senior staff. Proving that the payments were all well-spent on noble causes is not the real point. This is almost certainly not illegal, but it feeds into the narrative that Clinton is part of a Washington establishment that has different rules for the well-connected. She should have set down the same sort of safeguards that she now says she will have as President when she was Secretary of State. I believe her promise about what she will do going forward, but it begs the question as to why she didn’t do this in 2009, and it’s not the first time she has made that kind of mistake. In this respect she has been, if not her own worst enemy, at least an enabler of those enemies.

    HRC is on the whole well-qualified and deserving to become president, but she is far from perfect, and like everyone who aspires to power it is important to call her when she falls short.

    • weeklysift  On September 1, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Does it seem clear that contributions were prerequisite to get face time? To me, that’s exactly what AP failed to establish.

  • Jill Drury  On September 16, 2016 at 10:38 am

    On Mon, Aug 29, 2016 at 10:19 AM, The Weekly Sift wrote:

    > weeklysift posted: “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 ” >


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