Hillary Clinton has gotten very lucky in the 2016 presidential election, on few items as clearly as the Clinton Foundation. And her spell of good luck continued again Wednesday night at the third presidential debate.
Moderator Chris Wallace pointed out that Clinton had pledged to avoid appearances of conflict of interest between the Clinton Foundation and her work as secretary of state. “But emails show that donors got special access to you. Those seeking grants for Haiti relief were considered separately from non-donors, and some of those donors got contracts, government contracts, taxpayer money,” Wallace said. “Can you really say that you kept your pledge to that Senate committee? And why isn’t what happened and what went on between you and the Clinton Foundation, why isn’t it what Mr. Trump calls pay-to-play?”
Clinton more or less avoided the question. She said that “everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values. The State Department has said that.” Then she moved into a defense of the Clinton Foundation’s work. Wallace tried to get her back to the question at hand: “The specific question went to pay for play. Do you want to talk about that?” Clinton, for the most part, did not, saying “there’s no evidence.”
That gave Trump a chance to weigh in. “It’s a criminal enterprise, and so many people know it,” he said. He demanded that the Clinton Foundation return donations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, based on those countries’ records on women’s rights and gay rights, then attacked the Clinton Foundation’s work in Haiti. Clinton happily defended the foundation’s work in Haiti, then turned to mocking Trump’s own, beleaguered foundation.
It was a happy escape for Clinton. First, she dodged Wallace’s question. Then, Trump effectively let her off the hook. Even though he has floated the “pay-to-play” accusation, he instead changed the focus. Neither of his alternative attacks makes much sense. Trump’s efforts to present himself as a champion of women’s rights fall on his record of sexist comments and the raft of sexual-assault accusations against him.
The Haiti attack may win Trump some backing among conservative members of the Haitian diaspora, though it’s not his most forceful argument for the American electorate overall. Moreover, it is, as Jonathan Katz has detailed, misleading: While there are good critiques to be made of the Haitian reconstruction, they don’t involve the Clintons treating the effort as a personal ATM.
The pay-to-play allegations seem far closer to the mark. In early 2015, it looked like they could play a major role in the campaign. The book Clinton Cash, for example, showed a case where a donor to the Clinton Foundation, and friend of Bill Clinton’s, received crucial approval for a deal from Hillary Clinton’s State Department. No report has provided evidence of a tit-for-that in that case.
Once Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, her husband’s speaking fees increased. In some cases, his fees went to the former president as earned income; in other cases, it went to the foundation. It has not been made clear how the destination was determined, again creating a foggy minefield of potential conflicts of interest.
The Clinton Foundation also foreswore donations from foreign governments at the start of her term in Foggy Bottom. But while it appears the foundation followed the letter of that law, the spirit didn’t fare so well. Individuals close to foreign regimes gave generously.
Then there have been the messages that popped up in Clinton’s State Department emails. In multiple cases, Clinton Foundation official Doug Band had a back channel to the secretary’s aides, and particularly Huma Abedin, who also worked for his consultancy, Teneo. Band inquired about jobs for people and attempted to connect a wealthy Clinton Foundation donor from Lebanon with a State Department Lebanon hand to talk about elections in that country. (Other accusations, such as suggestions that Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus bought State Department access, make little sense.)
Clinton’s campaign has defended her against these charges by pointing out that there is no evidence of quid pro quos. The donor, Gilbert Chagoury, says he only wanted to provide advice, and he apparently never actually spoke with anyone at State. While that is true, it is also to a certain degree beside the point.
Conflicts of interest are as much about appearance as they are about concrete examples of malfeasance. The point of ethics guidelines is to avoid even the impression that there might be shady business, and in the case of the Clinton Foundation, that did not work. Even if donors to the Clinton Foundation were not getting access from the State Department, it’s easy to imagine some giving was inspired by the hope of access. And even if there were no concrete favors doled out, the Band messages suggest some access.
Trump’s failure to press his advantage politically, and Clinton’s success in dodging the question, make for interesting debate analysis. But if, as polls suggest, Clinton wins the presidency, the question will become more important. The Clinton Foundation reportedly plans to stop accepting foreign and corporate donations if Hillary Clinton is elected, and to discontinue the annual Clinton Global Initiative events. Bill Clinton would step down from the foundation, but Chelsea Clinton, their daughter, would apparently remain on the board.
In other words, there would remain many close links between the president of the United States and the Clinton Foundation, creating more space for accusations of conflict of interest and of pay-to-play. Clinton may have escaped the question on Wednesday, but it won’t go away if she wins.