Hillary's Campaign Is Built on a Shaky Foundation

Are conflicts of interest inevitable when the Clintons are involved?

Samantha Sais/Reuters/The Atlantic

The thing about the controversies shaking Hillary Clinton's still-not-yet-presidential campaign is how utterly predictable they are.

For example, communications that were supposed to be preserved turning up missing or deleted? We've heard that before. And now questions about sketchy foreign donations, and failures to disclose them? Somehow, that one seems familiar too. (Yes, James Carville, some of us do remember those long-ago controversies.)

Friday's news actually brings two, somewhat-related stories about questionable practices at the Clinton Foundation, the charitable organization that Bill Clinton created after leaving the White House. Reuters notes that when she became secretary of state in 2009, Hillary Clinton pledged to President Obama that the foundation would issue an annual report of all of its donors, to ease worries about foreign influence on the nation's top diplomat. That promise soon fell by the wayside, though: The Clinton Health Access Initiative, by far the foundation's largest element, hasn't issued a report since 2010. (CHAI was spun off that year, but remains subject to the same rules.) An official acknowledged the mistake.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal notes that while the foundation also forswore donations from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was helming the State Department, "that didn’t stop the foundation from raising millions of dollars from foreigners with connections to their home governments, a review of foundation disclosures shows." Specifically:

One is a member of the Saudi royal family. Another is a Ukrainian oligarch and former parliamentarian. Others are individuals with close connections to foreign governments that stem from their business activities. Their professed policy interests range from human rights to U.S.-Cuba relations.

All told, more than a dozen foreign individuals and their foundations and companies were large donors to the Clinton Foundation in the years after Mrs. Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, collectively giving between $34 million and $68 million, foundation records show. Some donors also provided funding directly to charitable projects sponsored by the foundation, valued by the organization at $60 million.

The problem here isn't that the Clinton Foundation wasn't following the rules. As with the email controversy, where there's evidence that the letter (though not the spirit) of public-records laws was followed, the problem here is with the rules themselves. It's hard to imagine any guideline that could avoid any suggestion that foreign actors were trying to influence Hillary Clinton, but also allow the Clinton Foundation to continue supporting its work. How many global donors have no connection to a foreign government?

Yet dissolving a huge charitable organization for a short stint as secretary of state doesn't seem practical either. (The fate of the foundation if Hillary Clinton is elected president is a different and more interesting topic for speculation.) Bill Clinton's post-presidency was unique from the start. As James Fallows noted in the magazine in 2003, he was the youngest ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt (and he's already outlived TR by eight years), so he had an unparalleled chance to create a post-presidential legacy. His connections to foreign leaders and his ability to raise money meant he could achieve more around the world than any predecessor and than most charitable organizations. As long as Hillary Clinton remains an aspiring or active public servant, however, there will be conflict-of-interest questions.

What has been clear, or should have been clear, since Clinton's rise to the top of the 2016 field, is that such controversies are what you get with the Clintons—take it or leave it. Hillary Clinton offers a depth of relationships with foreign leaders and a savvy that a Washington newcomer like Barack Obama (or Scott Walker) couldn't hope to bring to the White House; but you might also get uncomfortable donations. Often enough, there's no proof of serious malfeasance, either, just troubling questions. Both the emails and the donations fit that model. (One way to assess whether there was any tit-for-tat involving the foundation and the State Department would be if you could look at Hillary Clinton's emails while she was secretary, which ... right.)

Predictability might be Clinton's greatest asset. It's tough to find someone who doesn't already have an opinion about her. Those inclined to distrust the Clinton family see this as further proof of what they already believed, and those who think the media and a vast right-wing conspiracy are out to get the Clintons will likewise find confirmation of their views. (Early polls may be irrelevant, but a CNN survey this week found her well out ahead of the Republican field.) The election will be won among the small number of voters who might still be swayed—though how much effect Clinton Foundation donations will have on that is impossible to tell.