The Associated Press has come out with a story showing that a majority of non-governmental individuals that Hillary met with as Secretary of State during a selected period had been donors to the Clinton Foundation. The reasonable concern is that the foundation might thus have served as a pathway for influence over US foreign policy by globally active rich people. Unsurprisingly, the AP story has gotten lots of play in both print and broadcast media. (A major exception: The New York Times, whose silence on this subject doesn’t reflect well on the Times’ vaunted coverage of “all the news….”) The AP has been justly criticized for framing the story in sensationalistically misleading ways, but the core finding is of legitimate interest: it does warrant further examination of the foundation’s activities. And, on further examination, it turns out there is no evidence of any non-trivial favor by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on behalf of any donor. Paul Waldman does a fine refutation of all the brouhaha, which he attributes to the media’s knee-jerk application of the “Clinton rules.” There are various versions of the rules, but he describes them as stating that
…any allegation about Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, no matter how outlandish and no matter how thin the evidence for it, should be treated as serious and worthy of extended attention and unrestrained speculation..…And it means that the most common habits and occurrences will often be cast in sinister terms, even when there’s nothing out of the ordinary about them.”
So, “Foundationgate” turns out to be another in a long line of pseudo-scandals in which the Clintons’ alleged malfeasance has been trumpeted far and wide not only by the rabid political opposition, but by the mainstream media. I might add that apparently no one—not even the Trump campaign—denies that the Clinton Foundation has done very worthwhile work, for example, saving hundreds of thousands of lives by making steeply discounted HIV vaccine widely available. James Carville isn’t grossly oversimplifying in asserting that the foundation’s work is to take money from rich people to help poor people.
That much said, did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton do anything wrong at all in her relationship with the Clinton Foundation? Yes, she did, though some Clinton defenders seem loath to admit it.
The Clinton Foundation actively solicited the donations of foreign governments and powerful individuals with international interests. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that: if you want to raise money you go where the money is. But it means that the foundation’s target market included a healthy representation of people with interests potentially impacted by American foreign policy. No one can seriously doubt that once Hillary became Secretary of State, at least some of the foundation’s donors gave at least some thought to the possibility that their munificence might someday be repaid somehow. The Clintons, being very smart people, undoubtedly knew this. So, to avoid the appearance but also the temptation of impropriety, they should have set up an iron wall between the foundation and the State Department. It wouldn’t have been hard. Foundation staff could simply have been prohibited from any communications with State Department employees related to donor requests. They would then have been able to fall back on this restriction any time a donor sought out any kind of favor.
But there was no iron wall. Maybe you think there was no need for one, or that it would have been useless to try to put one up–that everybody knows that money buys access and that’s just the way the world works. I strongly suspect that that assumption helps explain why the Clintons didn’t build the wall. It’s an assumption that reflects a high comfort level with the world as it is, a world in which people with money have outsized influence with people in power. It’s a comfort level that tends to be higher inside the Beltway than in the rest of the country. It’s a comfort level that makes mainstream politicians like Hillary Clinton more vulnerable to the challenge of an ideologue like Bernie Sanders or a demagogue like Donald Trump.