The Clinton Foundation
Turkey invaded Syria today, sending geopolitical shivers through Western governments. On the one hand, the military initiative is a major step up of Turkey’s sort-of commitment to fighting ISIS. On the other hand, Turkey’s invasion was expressly conditioned on the United States demanding that Syrian Kurds, the most successful anti-ISIS ground force in the region, pull back to the east of the Euphrates River.
A major earthquake struck central Italy today, centered on Amatrice, a medieval town with pre-historic and Roman roots. More than a hundred deaths have been confirmed, a toll that will grow considerably as rubble is cleared. Buildings in the town’s historic center date from the 1200s; according to early reports, the historic center has been “destroyed.”
Louisianans are beginning what will be a long recovery from flooding of historic proportions, caused by rainfall three times as heavy as the rain from Hurricane Katrina. Only 13 people died, but more than 100,000 homes were damaged, 30 percent of the state’s school age population are out of school, and economic losses will be in the billions.
In other words, there was a lot of news – real news, about observable facts – to be reported today. But instead, television news today gave its closest attention to Donald Trump’s fact-free accusations of corruption involving the Clinton Foundation. According to Trump, Hillary and Bill Clinton set up the Clinton Foundation as a “business to profit from public office. They sold access and specific actions by and really for I guess the making of large amounts of money.”
Television news anchors have not bothered to check any of Trump’s claims for factual basis. Instead, they have gone straight to hauling in Clinton surrogates for accusatory interviews.
If we can’t talk about real news, like the Turkish invasion of Syria, the destruction of a medieval Italian town, or the flood in Louisiana, if we absolutely must talk about the Clinton Foundation, can we at least base our discussion on some facts?
For starters, what is the Clinton Foundation? Bill Clinton set up what was originally the William J. Clinton Foundation in 2001, after he left the White House. Chelsea Clinton joined the board of directors in 2011, as did Hillary Clinton in 2013, after her tenure as secretary of state. From 2013 to 2015, the foundation was renamed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. When Clinton opened her campaign for president in 2015, she left the board of directors and the foundation became the Clinton Foundation.
The stated mission of the Clinton Foundation is to “convene businesses, governments, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and individuals to improve global health and wellness, increase opportunity for girls and women, reduce childhood obesity, create economic opportunity and growth, and help communities address the effects of climate change.”
Note that the mission statement has two components, one about process and one about substance. The substantive component lists the goals the foundation pursues: health, opportunity for girls and women, economic growth, climate change, and so on. The process component is about how the foundation will pursue those goals: by bringing together private and public entities and individuals in collaboration.
The Clinton Foundation web site provides a fair amount of detail about its initiatives that support each of its goals. For instance, the home page for the “global health” goal talks about enhancing access for people living in “resource-poor settings” to diagnostics and treatment of treatable diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. The theme of the health programs is to transform health care systems in low-income countries “into self-sustaining methods of providing low-cost, high-quality care.”
My own view is that any objective observer would have to conclude that the Clinton Foundation has done tremendous good in its 15-year existence. I once characterized Jimmy Carter as “our greatest ex-president,” partly for the quality of his post-presidential work, and partly for his longevity in doing that work. At this point, I would say that Bill Clinton is gunning hard for second place.
But I’m not going to detail the range of work and successes of the Clinton Foundation, because for purposes of this post it makes no real difference if the Clinton Foundation is the most effective NGO in the history of the world or the most inept. (Still, I can’t resist mentioning that the charity watchdog organizations Charity Watch and GuideStar both gave the Clinton Foundation their highest ratings.)
Trump says that the Clinton Foundation was set up to make the Clintons money – to enable them “to profit from public office.” But in fact, none of the Clintons are salaried or otherwise compensated by the Clinton Foundation. So the core of Trump’s allegation is false – not arguable, not partly false, not probably false, not subject to interpretation, but flat-out, flat-earth, two-plus-two-is-five false.
Trump’s next claim is that Hillary Clinton used the foundation to sell “access and specific actions.” The notion about access is that people donated to the Clinton Foundation in exchange for getting meetings with Secretary of State Clinton. So, for instance, the media treated it as a great scandal that Secretary of State Clinton met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain after he pledged $32 million to Clinton Foundation programs.
Wait, what? A sitting secretary of state met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain? OMG, what is the world coming to? The evidence so far indicates that when Secretary Clinton’s aides thought a meeting was unwise, they said so and nobody overruled them.
Ultimately, though, even assuming the worst possible factual scenario on Trump’s “access” accusation, nothing illegal happened. The worst possible factual scenario would presumably be that donors said to Secretary Clinton’s aides, I’ll be glad to contribute to the Clinton Foundation if that will get me face time with the secretary. And guess what, folks – that’s not illegal.
Some surely wish that was illegal, including those who wanted former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to go to jail. Remember that Governor McDonnell was convicted of taking gifts worth $175,000 – gifts to him personally, including Rolex watches and catering for his daughter’s wedding, not gifts to any charitable McDonnell Foundation – in exchange for setting up meetings and making phone calls to help the gift givers sell their products and services.
But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction on the ground that setting up meetings and making phone calls were not “official acts” under the applicable federal law. That case makes clear that Hillary Clinton did not violate federal law even if she “accepted” gifts to what was at that time her husband’s foundation in exchange for taking meetings.
In other words, even if Hillary Clinton was, as Trump charges, “selling access,” there is no violation of law.
Last is Trump’s most outrageously fact-free accusation: that Clinton took “specific actions,” presumably beyond taking meetings, in exchange for contributions to the Clinton Foundation. If any such action can be proved, then Trump would be right, Clinton would be in violation of federal law, and she should not be president. But no one, despite unprecedented effort and attention, has come up with any evidence whatsoever of such an “action.”
When the accusatory interviews of Clinton surrogates on TV today get to that point, the television news anchors fall back on this: But isn’t there an appearance of impropriety?
George H. W. Bush set up the Thousand Points of Light Foundation in 1990, while he was president, and no one claimed any appearance of impropriety. Elizabeth Dole was the salaried president of the Red Cross while Bob Dole ran for president, and no one claimed any appearance of impropriety.
Presidents, and secretaries of state, meet with all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. The possibility that Secretary Clinton met, or President Clinton might meet, with someone who gave big to the Clinton Foundation seems to me to be at the very bottom of our ladder of political, social, economic and international concerns.
Donald Trump has once again proved that he is very good at creating a whirlwind of allegations and convincing the medial that his whirlwind is actually smoke, at the source of which there must be fire, or at least the appearance of fire.
By the way, can someone please ask Donald Trump: what have you done to fight treatable diseases, advance global growth and opportunity, roll back global warming, and equalize opportunities for girls?