Based on the frothy headlines, you might think the Clinton Foundation is some kind of illicit front company or sketchy offshore bank. Donald Trump wants to shut it down. The FBI has reportedly considered investigating it. A never-ending stream of once-private Hillary Clinton emails reveals donors to the foundation seeking special government favors when she was secretary of state.
In reality, the Clinton Foundation is a high-visibility charity that operates in Africa, Haiti and other downtrodden places and gets good marks for many of its programs. “Generally, they’re well respected and thought of as being effective,” says Chuck McLean, senior research fellow for GuideStar, which gathers and publishes data on nonprofits. “I haven’t heard anything like they’re squandering money or they’re ineffectual.”
Some charities draw criticism for spending too much donor money on salaries or perks for staff. The United Way once had a CEO convicted of fraud for essentially stealing the group’s money. Even the American Red Cross has been hammered for a lack of accountability over the use of $500 million donated to help Haiti after a devastating 2010 earthquake. Those sorts of allegations don’t generally surround the Clinton nonprofit, officially known as the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
The group’s main problem, rather, is the appearance that some wealthy donors, including corporations and foreign governments, give money to the foundation in the hope of getting favors from the U.S. government in return. And the only reason this is an issue is that, while Bill Clinton has been a private citizen since leaving the White House in 2001, his wife Hillary has been a high-ranking government official most of that time—first as a New York senator, then as America’s top diplomat. If she is elected president, donors to the Clinton Foundation could be construed as seeking influence with one of the most powerful people in the world.
It’s not unlike Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who also works for a non-profit. Of course, she works for a non-profit conservative advocacy group, and not something like the Clinton Foundation. You see, the Clinton Foundation isn’t really a foundation, but a public charity. Most foundations fund themselves through a large endowment, often created by a wealthy donor, which is how billionaire Bill Gates established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Clinton Foundation, by contrast, is funded by donations. And it spends most of the money it raises on its own programs, unlike foundations that mainly give grants to other nonprofits deemed worthy.
The Clinton Foundation has 10 different programs and a staff of nearly 500, with donations and other revenue totaling $178 million in 2014, the last year for which records are public. About 80% of spending goes toward charitable work. That’s a smaller portion than at the Carter Center, another nonprofit founded by a former president, which spends about 91% of its funds on programs. But it’s higher than at other charities.
One of the foundation’s 10 programs is the Clinton Global Initiative, which hosts an annual confab of glitterati in New York City each September. Other programs focus on reducing poverty, mitigating climate change, improving crop yields in Africa, rebuilding Haiti, and advancing the rights of girls and women around the world.
That sprawling portfolio may account for the wide range of Clinton Foundation donors and the impression among some that it’s a way for rich people everywhere to buy their way into the Clintons’ orbit. After refusing for several years, the foundation began to publish a list of its donors in 2009, when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. Clinton vowed to dissociate herself from the foundation while at the State Department, but newly released emails show foundation officials occasionally asked Clinton’s office for favors on behalf of foundation donors. There’s no evidence Clinton herself granted any favors.
Let me repeat that: There’s no evidence Clinton herself granted any favors.
The controversy over influence peddling obviously overshadows some of the good work the Clinton Foundation does, which often takes place in parts of the world with no American media to provide a counternarrative. Laura Seay, a professor at Colby College in Maine, recently defended the foundation in a series of tweets describing field work she did in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2005 to 2007, when the Clinton Foundation helped fund treatments in war-torn areas for children who were HIV-positive. “I know teens & young adults who were kids then & are alive today because the Clinton Foundation saved their lives when no one else would,” she wrote.
But is there a controversy at all? No, and here’s why.
The Associated Press has just shown us why it is important to be vigilant in how we consume the news as it is reported. They took some interesting information they gathered and spun it into something it wasn’t…scandalous. Here is their lead-in introduction:
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money – either personally or through companies or groups – to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.
At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.
Chris Cillizza is an example of a pundit who ran with it. In reference to that intro, he writes this:
It is literally impossible to look at those two paragraphs and not raise your eyebrows. Half of all of the nongovernmental people Clinton either met with or spoke to on the phone during her four years at the State Department were donors to the Clinton Foundation! HALF.
And those 85 people donated $156 million, which, according to my calculator, breaks down to an average contribution just north of $1.8 million. (Yes, I know that not everyone gave the same amount.)
It just plain looks bad. Really bad.
Now…let me pull a couple of other quotes from what he said.
No one is alleging that the Clinton Foundation didn’t (and doesn’t) do enormous amounts of good around the world…
To be clear: I have no evidence — none — that Clinton broke any law or did anything intentionally shady…
In other words, what it comes down to is “it just plain looks bad.” That is basically what most every drummed up “scandal” against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad. Welcome to the world of optics as scandal.
One way to look at this is that the AP spun the story they wanted to tell about this information. That happens almost all the time and we often don’t notice. To clarify how that happened here, note first of all the AP headline: “Many Donors to Clinton Foundation Met With Her at State.” As the Clinton response notes, that is not true:
Yup. Clinton Foundation has 7000 donors. Hillary met with 60 of them as Secretary of State. That’s about 1%.
So the Associated Press spun the information in a way that got an awful lot of attention. The AP did something else to spin this tale:
The 154 did not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives…
Clinton’s campaign said the AP analysis was flawed because it did not include in its calculations meetings with foreign diplomats or U.S. government officials, and the meetings AP examined covered only the first half of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
That is how they came up with the numbers to say, “More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money – either personally or through companies or groups – to the Clinton Foundation.”
But here is where the AP blew their story. In an attempt to provide an example of how this becomes an “optics” problem for Hillary Clinton, they focused much of the article on the fact that she met several times with Muhammad Yunus, a Clinton Foundation donor. In case you don’t recognize that name, he is an economist from Bangladesh who pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance as a way to fight poverty, and founded Grameen Bank. For those efforts, Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.
The connection the AP tries to make is that SoS Clinton met with Yunus because he was a Clinton Foundation donor. What they didn’t mention is that their relationship goes back over 30 years to the time Hillary (as first lady of Arkansas) heard about his work and brought him to her state to explore the possibility of implementing microfinance programs to assist the poor.
During the time that Clinton was Secretary of State, the government of Bangladesh was trying to discredit Yunus and remove him from leadership at Grameen Bank due to the fact that he was seen as a political threat. In case you think Clinton’s engagement on that presents and “optics” problem, consider this press release from then-Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry.
I am deeply concerned by efforts to remove Muhammad Yunus as managing director of the Grameen Bank. The international community will watch this situation closely, and I hope that both sides can reach a compromise that maintains Grameen Bank’s autonomy and effectiveness. Institutions like the Grameen Bank make a significant contribution to Bangladesh’s development and democracy and Professor Yunus’s life-long work to reduce poverty and empower women through microloans has deservedly received world-wide attention and respect.
Since those days, the whole fascination with microfinance as a way to combat poverty has waned a bit – mostly due to for-profit banks that abused the possibilities. But it is interesting to note that President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham Soetero, was deeply involved in promoting microfinance in Indonesia. Clinton herself made that connection on the day she started work as President Obama’s Secretary of State.
We have, with President Obama, someone who believes in development and diplomacy. Coming to the State Department yesterday sent a very strong signal. A few of you may even know, as I mentioned in my testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, that the President’s late mother was an expert in microfinance and worked in Indonesia. I have been involved in microfinance since 1983, when I first met Muhammad Yunus and had Muhammad come to see us in Arkansas so that we could use the lessons from the Grameen Bank in our own country. I was actually looking forward to being on a panel with the President’s mother in Beijing on microfinance.
One has to wonder why the AP chose this story of Clinton’s 30+ year relationship with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient committed to combating global poverty as the one to highlight in their efforts to suggest that the Secretary of State met with people because of their donations to the Clinton Foundation. It’s a classic flawed example.
Another bad example? Melinda Gates. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton met with Melinda Gates, who also happened to donate to the Clinton Foundation. The AP story suggests that Hillary Clinton met with Melinda Gates BECAUSE of the donation, but is there evidence of that? Melinda Gates is a public health philanthropist, an expert in that field. The issue of public health and dealing with aid to foreign nations is certainly something that the State Department DOES.
The State Department doing its job seems to clearly be the story of the time “Clinton also met in June 2011 with Nancy Mahon of the MAC AIDS, the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder.” Was the meeting about Mahon trying to swing a plumb internship for a family member? Nope! As the story concedes, “the meeting occurred before an announcement about a State Department partnership to raise money to finance AIDS education and prevention.”
So… where’s the beef?
I am not suggesting any nefarious motives on the part of the AP reporters. But as we see so often in the media, the facts must be paired with a narrative that gives them meaning. And the narrative, unfortunately, cannot be explained in a tweet, of even in an interview that only one news show might air.
So now we’re down to the final argument, which skirts the facts and relies on innuendo and says that donors get more than just a picture with a candidate; they get a chance to make their pitch for the policies they want pursued or blocked, a pitch the rest of us don’t get to make because we don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to contribute to campaigns.
And here, I agree. But I add that Clinton is no better, and in fact, probably less guilty than most other politicians, particularly the ones you’ve never heard about whose political careers hang in the balance and they REALLY kiss the donor asses. I’ll let Kevin Drum cross the finish line for me:
But it’s also something I can’t get too upset about. It’s not just that everyone does this. It’s not just that everyone in American politics does this. It’s the fact that everyone, everywhere, throughout all of human history has done this. It’s just the way human societies work. I’m all in favor of trying to reduce the influence of money on politics, but I doubt there’s any way to truly make much of a dent in it. And as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t consider it one of our nation’s biggest problems anyway.
So here are several possible takes on Hillary:
- Powerful people all run in the same circles. They all know each other. They all ask favors from one another. Hillary is part of this circle.
- People who are big party donors and big policy influencers have more access to politicians than, say, you or me. On this score, Hillary is a garden variety politician.
- Donating to the Clinton Foundation was a well-known requirement for getting a meeting with Hillary.
I’ve simply seen no evidence of #3, and that includes the AP’s strained effort yesterday.Besides, if this were truly well known, by now someone would have come forward to spill the beans.
As for #1 and #2, I don’t doubt that they’re as true of Hillary as they are of every other politician in the country. This might be an unfortunate state of affairs, but it’s certainly no scandal. So I remain confused. If you want to criticize the role of money in politics, that’s fine. If you want to criticize the outsize influence of the connected and powerful, that’s fine. If you want to criticize Hillary Clinton for being an ordinary part of this system—as Bernie Sanders did—that’s fine. (As long as you’re not also part of that same system, of course.) But is there some kind of special scandal associated with Hillary in the State Department? I sure don’t see it.
There’s no “it” to see.