When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.
The first two stories were from the Wall Street Journal, showing the Clinton Foundation was raking in donations from foreign governments as Hillary’s candidacy gets underway and also that Hillary had promoted as secretary of state companies that donated to the foundation. The latest such story is from Politico, and it details the problematic role that Bill Clinton has played in all this.
The story concerns the “big-money” speeches Clinton gave while his wife was secretary of state. He was required to get approval from his wife’s State Department in case there were any ethical gray areas and, wouldn’t you know it, he almost always got them.
There are two separate issues. The first is influence peddling:
The records also highlight a blind spot in the ethics deal the Clintons and the Obama transition team hammered out in 2008 with the involvement of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: While the pact subjected Bill Clinton’s moneymaking activities to official review, it imposed no vetting on donations to the Clinton Foundation by individuals or private companies in the U.S. or abroad.
Concerns about individuals seeking influence by dropping money in both buckets arose soon after the first few Bill Clinton speech proposals landed at Foggy Bottom. In a 2009 memo greenlighting those talks, a State Department ethics official specifically asked about possible links between President Clinton’s speaking engagements and donations to the Clinton Foundation. However, the released documents show no evidence that the question was addressed.
That phrase, “imposed no vetting,” is essential to the Clintons’ scheme. A donation to the Clinton Foundation is not instead of a donation to Bill or Hillary; it’s just a way to hide the details of a donation to Bill or Hillary.
And that’s related to the second issue: transparency. The Clintons were only technically vetting money given directly to Bill under this State Department setup. And yet, even those records are incomplete:
Doubts also remain about the transparency of the ethics deal. Obtaining details on how the approval process played out in practice has been difficult and slow. For nearly three years after POLITICO filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in late 2009, the State Department released no information.
Heavily redacted documents began to emerge only after the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in 2013. So far, the department has not committed to a date to produce all of the records.
How thoroughly State Department ethics officers vetted the requests remains unclear because of document redactions.
Some show lawyers there searching the Internet for information on the people or entities involved. One speech request generated a query to the acting chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, but the details of the exchange were redacted in the released documents.
Painter said that if the State Department did not know in advance about the specific fees involved for speeches or consulting deals, it would be difficult to judge whether sponsors were overpaying for Bill Clinton’s services.
“That would be a gap if they didn’t find out at all,” the ethics lawyer said.
Now, to suggest that this is solely a Bill Clinton problem for Hillary is not quite right. After all, the foundation was in his name while she was secretary of state and yet companies she would champion as the nation’s chief diplomat were plunking money into the foundation. The foundation also had a self-imposed ban on foreign-government contributions while she was at Foggy Bottom but the “ban wasn’t absolute,” so it wasn’t much of a “ban.”
When Hillary left the State Department, her name was added to the foundation and it resumed accepting the foreign money, eschewing even basic subtlety. So it’s not just about Bill; Hillary has been quite active in passing the hat herself once she turned toward running for president.
Now that there have been calls from both Republicans and Democrats to rein in the sleaze, the Clintons are contemplating going back to the old system. But that old system is the one with horrendous transparency, obvious ethical problems, and the appearance of impropriety at all times.
One thing is for certain: with the Clintons raking in the cash from foreign governments in anticipation of her candidacy, every single Democrat’s accusation of “dark money” and “Koch brothers cash” levied at Republicans should be ignored, without exception. As Kim Strassel wrote, the Clinton Foundation is essentially a super-PAC. And the candidate accepting contributions from Qatar and Saudi Arabia is in no position to lecture anyone on influence peddling and American democracy.