Commentary Magazine


Topic: Clinton Global Initiative

‘Clinton Cash’ and an Unprecedented Question

Democratic loyalists are reacting in predictable ways to the flurry of publicity for a new book about the way Bill and Hillary Clinton got rich via donations from foreign governments to their charity due out in a few weeks. Their instincts tell them to dismiss the allegations in Peter Schweitzer’s book as just the latest manifestation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get the Clintons, to use Hillary’s memorable phrase from the 1990s. But the attention being paid to the book by the New York Times and not just Fox News is making it hard to do so. It remains to be seen whether Schweitzer’s charges about foreign entities making massive contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative as well as paying enormous speaking fees to the former president in return for favors from the State Department when the former first lady led it will be substantiated. But what cannot be disputed is that the Clintons have behaved in an unprecedented manner. The real question is whether their pushing of the boundaries of ethical behavior will ultimately be seen as disqualifying or if, instead, be disregarded as just one more set of rules that the once and future first family can ignore with impunity.

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Democratic loyalists are reacting in predictable ways to the flurry of publicity for a new book about the way Bill and Hillary Clinton got rich via donations from foreign governments to their charity due out in a few weeks. Their instincts tell them to dismiss the allegations in Peter Schweitzer’s book as just the latest manifestation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get the Clintons, to use Hillary’s memorable phrase from the 1990s. But the attention being paid to the book by the New York Times and not just Fox News is making it hard to do so. It remains to be seen whether Schweitzer’s charges about foreign entities making massive contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative as well as paying enormous speaking fees to the former president in return for favors from the State Department when the former first lady led it will be substantiated. But what cannot be disputed is that the Clintons have behaved in an unprecedented manner. The real question is whether their pushing of the boundaries of ethical behavior will ultimately be seen as disqualifying or if, instead, be disregarded as just one more set of rules that the once and future first family can ignore with impunity.

On its face, the reports about Schweitzer’s book appear to indicate that what he has done is merely to collate a vast array of material about the Clintons, their charity, and U.S. foreign policy, and to attempt to connect the dots between subjects that Bill and Hillary would like very much for us to keep separate. In response, the Clinton machine is trotting out the gang of usual suspects to put it down as politicized reporting that unfairly attempts to stigmatize the work of a noble charity as well as to besmirch Hillary’s record at the State Department.

Yet however much they huff and puff about the effrontery of those who dare to question the Clintons’ behavior, they can’t entirely squelch concerns about the way the couple has pushed the conventional boundaries of ethical political behavior in ways that are completely unprecedented in American political history. Though this is being viewed as a purely political question, there’s more here than just an opportunity for conservatives and Republicans to throw dirt at the putative 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. Even if you admired the previous Clinton presidency and think Hillary would make an admirable successor to Barack Obama, the facts about the Clinton charity and the way it has solicited donations give even liberals a queasy feeling about the manner in which has operated. More than that, there is simply no previous example of a former president and his family creating such an entity that is dependent in part on foreign riches while one of its principals has been actively conducting American foreign policy and preparing for a future presidential run.

It must be conceded that just because there has never been anything like the Clinton power couple before doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. But in an era when conflicts of interest involving public officials are often justifications for lengthy and costly investigations–and possible prosecution if authorities think they can substantiate a link, however circumstantial, between official behavior and actions from donors that benefit an official and/or his or her family–the most favorable way of characterizing the Clintons’ behavior is to say that it is very fishy. Yet we should probably take it as a given that the Clintons and their lawyers are likely so savvy about how to push the envelope on ethics that they have been careful to avoid breaking any laws or at least that they have done so in ways that will make it difficult, if not impossible for them to be prosecuted.

It is also true that former President Clinton’s conduct seems very much in line with the kind of activity that nowadays we treat as normal from former members of the House and Senate who routinely cash out on their political careers after retirement or defeat at the polls by becoming lobbyists, consultants, or otherwise profiting from their status as former power brokers. Past presidents have often been involved in charity work, though never on the scale of the Clinton Global Initiative before. But even if other former chief executives have made money speaking, those paying them exorbitant honorariums were never before doing so while a presidential spouse was in power or planning to get it, raising issues of quid pro quo transactions that have never before been lodged before against one of our former presidents and their families.

Are the American people are really comfortable with the idea of a former president profiting from the largesse lavished upon him and the charity he runs from foreign sources while his wife presides over the State Department while biding her time before running for president? Clinton’s defenders are anxious that we think it no big deal while their antagonists seem to think that merely pointing out what is already on the record about their behavior is enough to disqualify Hillary from consideration in 2016. But what we don’t know is which of these two possible responses characterizes the thinking of the electorate.

It is possible that just as Bill Clinton broke new ground in violating norms about personal behavior in the White House without forfeiting the support of many, if not most Americans, so, too, the tale of the “Clinton Cash” will similarly be forgiven, if not altogether ignored by enough Americans to ensure their return to the White House. But just as there is no precedent for their behavior and the questions they have raised about the intersection of policy, charity, and speeches for profit, there is also none that can give us an answer to this question about how such hijinks influence presidential elections. All we know is that the Clinton way of doing charity work for profit and power has raised questions about Hillary’s candidacy and her party in ways that not even the sagest pundits can be sure about the people’s response to this mess.

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Hillary’s Emails Raise Questions That Require Answers

In case you thought the special House committee investigating the Benghazi attack is a waste of time, think again. It was inquiries from that panel that led to the discovery of the fact that Hillary Clinton only used a private email account during her time as secretary of state. This revelation is, to understate the matter, a very curious business. Though not the first such cabinet official to use a private account, she appears to be the first to only use one, a violation of federal regulations that require all such communications to be preserved. At the very least this is the sort of thing that will fuel the imaginations and the energy of conspiracy theorists. But even those of us who are not afflicted by Clinton derangement syndrome (the forerunner of the syndromes that have popped up since then in reaction to the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama), the existence of untold numbers of emails that may never see the light of day raises some serious questions about her lack of transparency. But in a political career that has always blurred the line between personal and public, Clinton must also be prepared to answer even more worrisome queries about possible connections between her husband’s fundraising from foreign powers and her conduct in office and future plans for the presidency.

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In case you thought the special House committee investigating the Benghazi attack is a waste of time, think again. It was inquiries from that panel that led to the discovery of the fact that Hillary Clinton only used a private email account during her time as secretary of state. This revelation is, to understate the matter, a very curious business. Though not the first such cabinet official to use a private account, she appears to be the first to only use one, a violation of federal regulations that require all such communications to be preserved. At the very least this is the sort of thing that will fuel the imaginations and the energy of conspiracy theorists. But even those of us who are not afflicted by Clinton derangement syndrome (the forerunner of the syndromes that have popped up since then in reaction to the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama), the existence of untold numbers of emails that may never see the light of day raises some serious questions about her lack of transparency. But in a political career that has always blurred the line between personal and public, Clinton must also be prepared to answer even more worrisome queries about possible connections between her husband’s fundraising from foreign powers and her conduct in office and future plans for the presidency.

In addressing Clinton’s violation of the rules, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, the former first lady and secretary of state isn’t guilty of a host of possible crimes until she can prove herself innocent. But we needn’t raise the ghost of Vince Foster or Whitewater, let alone indict her on charges of sending men to their deaths in Benghazi or selling the country down the river to Persian Gulf oil states, to accept the fact that this highly suspicious.

As an expert in the field told the New York Times:

“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business,” said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration.

At the very least, the bizarre decision to forgo a government email while serving as secretary of state is a violation of the rules that apply to all those in high office. The regulations exist since all such emails are government records, much the same as correspondence and dispatches were in the era when snail mail was the only form of written communication. Government accounts are also far more secure than any personal account, a factor that Clinton was irresponsible to ignore in this era of cyber warfare. She was not the only secretary of state to use a personal account. But she’s the only to use it exclusively. As such, none of her emails were preserved during her time in office. It is only subsequent to her leaving her post to prepare for a presidential run that her staff began the process of sorting through her emails and deciding which of them should be sent to the government to be archived.

That the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee would behave in this manner is not all that surprising. The Clintons are legendary for their conspiratorial mindset and lack of transparency. But despite her spokesperson’s claim that she followed the letter and the spirit of the law, we are still left with the question of who got to decide which of her emails were private and which was government business and what were the criteria they used.

But as our Seth Mandel wrote last month when the scandal about foreign governments being solicited for donations by the former president while his wife ran U.S. foreign policy broke, transparency is not a minor concern when it comes to the Clintons. We don’t have to assume that she was personally participating in this highly corrupt practice to be curious about whether the same email account that she used to conduct business was also receiving communications about her husband’s success in shaking down governments for contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative. The mixing of her government business with her family’s private ambitions was bad enough even if one doesn’t take for granted, as we probably must, that all such donations were bribes aimed at winning the good will of a secretary of state, if not a future president. But now that we know that her emails were not automatically being preserved for the archive, it’s not unreasonable to worry that somewhere in this treasure trove of information are some nuggets that may not put her and her affable spouse in a flattering light, if not legal jeopardy.

If Clinton is smart, she will repress her instinctual reflex to stonewall and release her emails as Jeb Bush, one of the people who hope to oppose her in November 2016, has done. At the very least she should choose someone not associated with her family political machine to go through these communications and redact those that are truly personal. If not, she shouldn’t be surprised if this issue haunts her throughout the coming election year. More to the point, if Clinton doesn’t realize how damning this looks and the need to be above board when running for president, she will be disqualifying herself for the job.

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Romney on How Foreign Aid Can Change the Middle East

At heart, Mitt Romney is a moderate and a businessman. So it’s not a surprise that his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative today, which was non-partisan and focused on fostering free enterprise in poor nations, was one of the best and most detailed ones he’s given in a while.

Romney delved into the cultural issues behind poverty and instability in the Middle East, a touchy subject that he got burned on during his Israel trip. But this time he made the case in a more elegant way. “Religious extremism is certainly part of the problem,” he noted. “But that’s not the whole story.” The other factor? A very young population with a bleak economic future, who have known nothing but corruption and oppression:

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At heart, Mitt Romney is a moderate and a businessman. So it’s not a surprise that his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative today, which was non-partisan and focused on fostering free enterprise in poor nations, was one of the best and most detailed ones he’s given in a while.

Romney delved into the cultural issues behind poverty and instability in the Middle East, a touchy subject that he got burned on during his Israel trip. But this time he made the case in a more elegant way. “Religious extremism is certainly part of the problem,” he noted. “But that’s not the whole story.” The other factor? A very young population with a bleak economic future, who have known nothing but corruption and oppression:

In such a setting, for America to change lives, to change communities and nations in the Middle East, foreign aid must also play a role. And the shape that role should take was brought into focus by the life and death of Muhammed Bouazizi of Tunisia, the street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring.

He was just 26-years-old.  He had provided for his family since he was a young boy.  He worked a small fruit stand, selling to passers-by. The regular harassment by corrupt bureaucrats was elevated one day when they took crates of his fruit and his weighing scales away from him.

On the day of his protest, witnesses say that an officer slapped Bouazizi and he cried out, “Why are you doing this to me?  I’m a simple person, and I just want to work.”

I just want to work.

Work.  That must be at the heart of our effort to help people build economies that can create jobs for people, young and old alike. Work builds self-esteem. It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding. Work will not long tolerate corruption nor quietly endure the brazen theft by government of the product of hard-working men and women.

Romney proposed something he calls “Prosperity Pacts” for the Middle East, which will require developing countries to open up certain barriers to trade, investment and entrepreneurship in exchange for non-humanitarian foreign aid. Romney grasps a simple concept that the Obama administration apparently doesn’t. In some places, particularly those with deep-seated corruption, democracy needs a push. There should be a greater government focus on efforts like the one Romney outlined, that promote economic and political freedom.

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