By Paul McGeough
Sydney Morning Herald
It’s true – no smoking gun has been unearthed in the endless vivisection of the affairs of the Clinton Foundation.
Hillary Clinton sometimes in the shadows — Polls show Hillary Clinton rates as one of the least trusted candidates to seek the presidency. Photo by Justin Sullivan
But it’s also true, there’s enough smoke for a brigade of political firemen to fear or hope, depending on their partisan bent, that the next cloud might signal a blaze that will engulf the house that Bill and Hill built.
Clinton Inc is an incredible parallel universe, in which lines are blurred between private and public; between charitable, political and personal; between government and family; between altruistic, greedy … and dumb.
The Clinton Foundation set up by Hillary and Bill Clinton has come under much suspicion. Photo by Getty Images
To avoid his and hers confusion here, we’ll refer to the Clintons as their inner circle does – he’s WJC, William Jefferson Clinton; she’s HRC, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As a multibillion-dollar charity that sprawls the globe, the Clinton Foundation and its many do-gooder satellites is a fantastic, even commendable leveraging of WJC’s phenomenal schmooze power as a former president. And undoubtedly, HRC’s impressive resume makes her a plausible Democratic candidate for the White House.
But … having your cake and eating it too doesn’t quite describe the brinkmanship that’s going down here.
To think the Clintons could get away with having both, hoovering up millions for themselves and separately for the foundation from individuals, corporations and governments that are always on the make in Washington, at the same time as HRC’s eventual pursuit of the presidency was always on the cards, at best was naive … and at worst, to use a technical term more commonly applied to the Trump file, stupid.
Protesters outside a community college before a campaign event with Hillary Clinton in Reno, Nevada on Thursday. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon
Doubly so, because when these two are challenged, a genetically coded Clinton defence mechanism kicks in – they hunker to fight, driven as much by a sense of entitlement and a towering belief in their own trustworthiness, as by their long-held belief that they are unfairly persecuted by a “vast right-wing conspiracy”. One begets the other.
And in the soap opera that is American celebrity politics, there is an enduring tension.
Hillary Clinton apologised about her emails with none of the how-dare-you irritation that often characterises the defence of her conduct. Photo: Carolyn Kaster
As invariably is the case in Washington, it’s what is legal, not illegal, that is shocking; and maligned as American voters are, they are not oblivious – hence HRC’s rating as one of the least trusted candidates ever to seek the presidency, second only to Donald Trump.
In the Real Clear Politics average of national polls on the candidates’ perceived unfavourability, HRC fares better than her Republican rival Trump – hers now stands at 53 per cent, down marginally from a high of 56 per cent in May; his stands at 62 per cent, down a whisker from an April high of 64.5 per cent. But in June, a telling poll for The Wall Street Journal found voters found Trump more sincere – 62 per cent said Clinton did not believe what she says, whereas 56 per cent said Trump does believe what he says.
Hillary Clinton with her trusted confidante Huma Abedin. Photo by AP
That voter sentiment is driven by the Clinton aversion to transparency.
As secretary of state, HRC knew every email she might write on a government email system would be archived as the property of the department and in time would be scrutinised publicly. So she installed her own private email server – and on resigning in 2013, it was her lawyers, not departmental officials, who culled thousands of emails as “personal” – which were then deleted.
Between her term as secretary of state and her campaign for the Democratic nomination, Clinton was paid millions of dollars to make speeches to the big end of town, which she stubbornly refuses to make public – despite her insistence that her hosts provide her with transcripts of the speeches. And when Associated Press suspected there might be public interest value in cross-referencing the list of people who Clinton met as Secretary of State and the foundation’s donor list, it became a three-year-long battle that was resolved in AP’s favour – only after the agency went to a federal court.
Given that business regulation is a constant in the trench warfare that passes for lobbying in Washington, the cash that Wall Street and others shovelled to HRC as a prospective presidential candidate at the same time as they piled greater quantities at the door of the foundation named for the former president who could be joining her at the White House, is gob smacking, including:
July 2013: $US225,000 from UBS Wealth Management, which donated up to $US1 million to the foundation
August 2014: $US325,000 from Cisco Systems, the IT giant, which donated up to $US5 million to the foundation
October 2014: $US280,000 from Deutsche Bank, which donated up to $US500,000 to the foundation
AP published its analysis this week – and walked into a wall of fire from HRC and from some quarters in the media.
Some argue that what AP found was unexceptional. Still, it played to the perceptions that the foundation is a dodgy deal and a self-inflicted wound for the Clintons – more than half of the non-government types who met HRC or spoke to her by phone in a two-year period in her tenure as secretary of state, were donors who gave as much as $US156 million to the foundation.
True, HRC had not started or prematurely ended any wars as a result of any of these meetings.
And while there might have been merit in her meeting the Nobel laureate and Bangladeshi economist Mohammed Yunnus who wanted her to help push back a campaign by the Dacca government to remove him from his much lauded micro-financing bank and a team from Estee Lauder, which was working with HRC’s department on countering gender-based violence in South Africa; the same can hardly be said of a Wall St executive with a visa problem.
AP categorised as “acceptable” HRC’s meeting in the same period with representatives of at least 16 foreign governments that had donated as much as $US170 million to the Clinton charity – on the grounds that, of course, the secretary of state should meet foreign officials.
Since it’s inception after WJC’s departure from the White House in 2000, the foundation has received more than $US2 billion from more than 6000 donors, a financial history that leaves experts in governmental and corporate ethicists divided on the extent to which HRC as president might be compromised.
Douglas White, an expert on nonprofits and a past director of Columbia University’s graduate fund-raising program, told AP: “There’s a lot of potential conflicts and a lot of potential problems – the point is, she can’t just walk away from these 6000 donors.”
Norman Eisen, a one time ethics counsellor to President Barack Obama who was appointed by HRC as US ambassador to the Czech Republic, differed as he threw in multiple cautions – “If [HRC as president] puts the right people in and she’s tough about it and has the right procedure in place and sends a message consistent with a strong commitment to ethics, it can be done.”
The AP report came on the heels of another tranche of the emails to be released by the State Department, which included 44 that were not among the 55,000 pages of emails HRC had handed over as all her “work-related” emails at the end of her tenure.
Again, no smoking gun; just lingering suspicion and a whiff of something not quite right with a bunch of people who might have used the State Department’s front door to gain access, as opposed to back-door access through the foundation.
And facilitating all was a well-oiled conduit – at the foundation Doug Band, an enterprising WJC stalwart since White House days; and at the department Huma Abedin, HRC’s trusted confidante whose emails also went through the private server.
At one stage, Abedin achieved a remarkable remuneration trifecta of being simultaneously on the payroll of the State Department, the Clinton foundation and a private consultancy established by Band.
As sold by Band, the Crown Prince of Bahrain was “a good friends of ours”. Why – because he had dropped as much as $US100,000 to the foundation and another $US32 million to a scholarship scheme endorsed by the Clinton Global Initiative?
Then there was Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire and a top donor to the foundation, who just had to talk to someone in the State Department – “this is very important,” Band wrote.
Then there was the case of an associate, whose personal details were redacted before the release of the email, who had been on a Clinton Foundation trip to Haiti and seemingly wanted a gig at the State Department – Band parsed this as requesting “a favour” that was “important to take care of”. Abedin got it, replying in one of her 7000 emails to Band: “We all have him on our radar. Personnel has been sending him options.”
That Judicial Watch, the organisation driving the legal fight for the release of the Clinton emails, might qualify for membership of the HRC’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” is beside the point – sure Judicial Watch is obsessive in its effort to damage the Clintons, but it is using laws and courts that are available for all to use; and it merely seeks the release of correspondence that those in the government stream of the Clinton firmament did actually write.
And Judicial Watch is not alone. The revelation that HRC had resorted to a private server provoked an FBI investigation, at the end of which FBI director James Comey denounced HRC’s email management as “extremely careless…negligent” and “sloppy”.
Comey concluded she had not been “criminally” negligent – but the FBI investigation turned up almost 15,000 emails that HRC had not handed over to the State Department and which, by a court mandated timeline, could be released publicly ahead of the November 8 election.
In another wrinkle, WikiLeaks. which in July, publicly downloaded 20,000 damaging emails from the computers of the Democratic National Committee, claims it will be releasing more information with some “unexpected angles” on HRC’s campaign before polling day.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Fox News this week: “I don’t want to give the game away, but it’s a variety of documents from different types of institutions that are associated with the election campaign, some quite unexpected angles, some quite interesting, some even entertaining.
“I think it’s significant. You know, it depends on how it catches fire in the public and in the media.”
And here’s the rub. For all their defensive posturing, the Clintons belatedly have effectively agreed with much of the criticism – on Monday, WJC announced that if HRC becomes president, he would step down from the foundation’s board, he would not engage personally in fundraising and the foundation would cease its acceptance of foreign donations – taking money only from US citizens, legal residents and US-based independent foundations.
HRC doesn’t deign to hold open press conferences – her last was 267 days ago. But in the relative safety of a one-on-one phone interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, she conceded “there’s a lot of smoke”, even as she argued there was no fire in the affairs of the foundation.
Asked why the foundation would wait until she was elected before imposing WJC’s proposed new regime rather than to do so immediately, HRC replied: “Obviously, there will be some unique circumstances.”
Cooper came back with the obvious question: “Didn’t those unique circumstances exist when you were secretary of state?”
HRC: “No, no, look – I know there is a lot of smoke and there is no fire.”
She then segued to an attack on the AP analysis, arguing: “It draws a conclusion and makes a suggestion that my meetings with people like the late, great Elie Wiesel or Melinda Gates or the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunnus [the Bangladeshi economist], were somehow due to connections with the foundation instead of their status as highly respected global leaders.
“That is absurd. These are people I would be proud to meet with, as any secretary of state would have been proud to meet with, to hear about their work and their insights.”
And though it might have been too late, because she has suffered so much political damage through the 18 months in which the controversy of the private email server has dogged her campaign, Clinton managed an apology that had none of the how-dare-you irritation that often characterises her defence of her conduct.
Here’s what she said: “I have been asked many, many questions in the past year about emails, and what I have learned is that when I try to explain what happened, it can sound like I am trying to excuse what I did.
“And there are no excuses. I want people to know that the decision to have a single account was mine. I take responsibility for it. I apologise for it.”