Does the new batch of previously undisclosed State Department emails prove that big-money donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got special favors from Clinton while she was secretary of state?
Not so far, but that the question arises yet again points to a need for major changes at the foundation now, before the November election.
Bill Clinton created the foundation in 2001 as a vehicle to fund his presidential library. He and his supporters have since raised more than $2 billion and pioneered initiatives ranging from fostering female-owned businesses in Haiti to lowering the cost of HIV/AIDS drugs in Africa. As the enterprise sprawled from water treatment to education to climate change, all three Clintons got involved, along with their network of longtime political advisers, former administration officials and business partners.
When Clinton became secretary of state, the Obama administration tried to draw a line between the foundation, particularly its foreign-government sponsors, and her role. The new emails underscore that this effort was at best partly successful. “Pay-to-play” charges by Donald Trump have not been proved. But the emails and previous reporting suggest Trump has reason to say that while Clinton was secretary, it was hard to tell where the foundation ended and the State Department began.
Clinton became involved in State Department deals and negotiations that also involved foundation donors or board members. She prompted multiple investigations with an arrangement that allowed Huma Abedin, her deputy chief of staff at the State Department and now vice chairwoman of her campaign, to be paid simultaneously by the State Department, the foundation and Teneo, a consulting firm run by Doug Band, the former adviser to Bill Clinton who helped create the foundation — and who sent emails to Abedin seeking favors for foundation donors.
The newly disclosed emails show that some foundation donors and friends, like Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin al-Khalifa of Bahrain, used foundation channels to seek access to Clinton.
When Clinton announced her candidacy, the foundation said it would stop taking contributions from foreign governments, except for contributions from Australia, Canada and a handful of European nations. Donna Shalala, the foundation president, says now that if Clinton wins, the foundation will stop taking money from any foreign governments, corporations or citizens; U.S. corporations and corporate foundations would also be barred. Contributions would be limited to American citizens, permanent residents and U.S.-based independent foundations.
A wiser course would be to ban contributions from foreign and corporate entities now. If Hillary Clinton wins, Bill and Chelsea Clinton should both end their operational involvement in the foundation and its affiliates for the duration of her presidency, relinquishing any control over spending, hiring and board appointments.
Hillary Clinton has said she intends to give Bill Clinton a role in her administration. Cutting his foundation ties would demonstrate that he is giving any role he would have in the administration the priority it deserves. It would also send a signal that Hillary Clinton and her family have heard the concerns of critics and supporters and will end any further possibility for the foundation to become a conduit to the White House for powerful influence seekers.
The Clinton Foundation has become a symbol of the Clintons’ laudable ambitions, but also of their tangled alliances and operational opacity. If Hillary Clinton wins, it could prove a target for her political adversaries. Achieving true distance from the foundation is not only necessary to ensure its effectiveness, it is an ethical imperative for Clinton.