the national interest

If This Is the Best Defense of the Clinton Foundation, She’s in Trouble

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton address the audience during the Opening Plenary Session: Reimagining Impact for the Clinton Global Initiative on September 22, 2014 at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The Clintons’ post-presidential career has turned out to be a serious problem, especially for people like me, who will almost certainly vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Clintons’ foundation work and Bill Clinton’s speech-for-hire business put the couple in the position of asking for money from people or businesses who had or have reason to curry favor from Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of State or as potential future president. Rather than treat these conflicts as a serious problem of public ethics and a campaign liability, the Clintons handled it haphazardly, creating significant problems for her 2016 campaign and legitimate reasons for undecided voters to doubt her and her husband’s commitment to good government.

That’s the argument I made in a column last Thursday. It has come under scathing attack by Joe Conason, author of The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, and also the forthcoming The Hunting of Hillary: The Campaign to Destroy Hillary Clinton,” and possible future author of a book about efforts to hunt and/or destroy Chelsea Clinton. Conason has written a piece assailing my column as the latest installment in the effort to destroy the Clintons for containing, he claims, “stunning errors” and “misinformation.”

In fact, Conason identifies no errors or misinformation of any kind. His technique is to divert his audience’s attention away from the specific claims at issue, on which he has no ground to stand, and onto the amorphous question of the general virtues of the Clintons and the untrustworthiness of their enemies. Since my goal is to clarify the specifics of the matter at hand, I’ll go through his argument point by point.

1. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine has done no small damage to his own reputation as a liberal intellectual over the past year or so.”

Conason is correct that I wrote an essay denouncing political correctness that generated controversy on the left, but this is irrelevant.

2. Chait describes the Clinton post-presidency as ‘disastrous.’ Certainly the work of the former president hasn’t been ‘disastrous’ for the millions of people across the world aided by the work of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, including vast numbers whose lives have been saved over the past dozen years or so thanks to the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative (which Chait doesn’t deem worth mentioning).”

In fact, my column does mention that Clinton’s charitable work has “raise[d] a lot of money for charitable purposes that can do a lot of good.” It does not single out the HIV initiative for praise, but this has no bearing on the issue at hand, which concerns the conflicts of interest in their work.

3 “Nor has the Clinton post-presidency proved disastrous for President Barack Obama, a former adversary whom the Clintons have served very well indeed.”

It is true that the Clintons campaigned for Obama, to the benefit of both Obama and the Clintons, but also irrelevant.

4. “Nevertheless, parroting a series of recent accusations against the Clintons ... ”

What Conason means by “parroting” “accusations” is summarizing four news reports that appeared that day.

5. “‘The has a report about the State Department’s decision to approve the sale of uranium mines to a Russian company that donated $2.35 million to the Clinton Global Initiative,’ intones Chait. But that is such an inaccurate, misleading way to characterize what happened as to indicate that the columnist may need remedial reading instruction.

Tendentious and biased as it was, even the Times report noted that the decision to approve the Russian uranium sale was made not by the State Department alone, but by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) — a powerful interagency committee chaired by the Treasury Department that includes the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the Energy Department, and a host of other cabinet-level government agencies.

The New York Times story, which Conason deems biased against the Clintons, concerns the entanglement of donors to the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons personally who had an interest in a project that required approval by a number of U.S. agencies. One of those agencies was the State Department, then headed by Hillary Clinton. The fact that Clinton was receiving payment from interested parties, via her husband, strikes me as problematic.

Conason ignores the conflict of interest and instead focuses his defense on the fact that the State Department could not approve the project alone. This is true. However, neither the Times nor I claim otherwise. My column referred to “the State Department’s decision to approve the sale,” which is the policy decision at issue. I did not suggest that State Department approval was sufficient for the purchase to go forward. All that matters for the conflict of interest to be meaningful is that State Department approval was necessary.

6. “And nowhere did the Times report show that Hillary Clinton personally influenced the decision. Indeed, the record indicates that she played no role whatsoever.

It is true that the Times does not show that Secretary Clinton personally influenced the decision. I never claimed otherwise. And of course if there were evidence that she had intervened in the deal, it would probably be gone now, since her improperly used email account has been wiped.

7. “Chait complains that President Clinton received speaking fees from some of the same organizations that have donated to his foundation, linking to an article in the Washington Post. He fails to explain why he thinks that is a conflict of interest.

No, the conflict of interest I describe is not between Clinton’s role as foundation operator and his role as private speechmaker. Rather, the conflict is between both those roles, which makes Clinton beholden to people and businesses with a vested interest in government policy, and his wife’s role as policymaker. The very long list of businesses that have donated to the Clinton Foundation and also lobbied the State Department during Clinton’s tenure suggests that conflict-of-interest problems were extensive.

8. “He points out that the Clinton Foundation is re-filing and auditing some of its tax returns because of errors that have been discovered. Many other corporations, non-profits, and individuals have made errors on their taxes, as he surely knows.”

If I had accused the Clintons of being the only taxpayers in history to make errors, this would be a relevant defense. My suggestion, instead, is that the Clintons’ disclosure — while not literally the worst in the history of accounting — is sloppy and poor. The Reuters story I excerpted calls the Clintons’ need to refile returns three or four years in a row “highly unusual,” and it quotes Bruce Hopkins, “a Kansas City lawyer who has specialized in charity law for more than four decades,” who says, “I’ve never seen amendment activity like that.”

9. “Nobody has accused the Clintons or their foundation of attempting to cheat the government; the foundation is tax-exempt, of course, and the Clintons personally have disclosed more of their tax returns over the past three decades than any political family in American history.”

This is also irrelevant.

10. Next is a three-paragraph passage too long to excerpt, in which Conason takes me to task for quoting a 2013 New York Times story describing haphazard financing and organization at the Clinton Foundation. According to Conason, the story has been debunked by no less an authority than Bill Clinton himself (“the New York columnist apparently never bothered to consult President Clinton’s response, which schooled the Times reporters on the basics of non-profit financing and tax reporting”). The dispute delves into the intricacies of nonprofit funding streams, but the larger point — that the Foundation was poorly organized — is not even disputed by Conason. Times Washington editor Carolyn Ryan told me the paper stands by its reporting, and in any case, the beef here is between the Times and Conason, who regards nearly the entirety of the mainstream media as congenitally biased against the Clintons.

11. Conason takes issue with my citing a 2012 New Yorker story by Ryan Lizza, which reports that, according to “an intimate of the Clintons,” Bill advocated for Hillary to accept the secretary of State job and Clinton’s foundation work benefitted from her role. Conason replies, “That is simply nonsense, as anyone having even the barest familiarity with the facts could attest. The Clinton Global Initiative began in 2005, four years before anyone imagined Hillary Clinton would ever be named Secretary of State, with a stellar roster of present and former foreign heads of state and other leaders that included British prime minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.”

This is also completely irrelevant. Lizza is not charging that Clinton began the Clinton Global Initiative because his wife was Secretary of State, but that he wanted his wife to become secretary of State because it would help the his foundation. The fact that the Clinton Global initiative existed before 2009 in no way refutes Lizza’s reporting.

12. “His ignorance was amplified by excited links in Politico and the Drudge Report — which may be what he really wanted in the first place.”

This accusation is irrelevant, and also bizarre, but worth paying attention to because it helps locate Conason’s true aim here. He comes to the issue as a true believer in the Clintons’ virtue, rather than, as he says, a critic of journalists who make insinuations without evidence — a practice in which he is evidently willing to engage personally.

Clinton Foundation Needs Better Defense