WASHINGTON, August 25, 2016 — The Clinton presidential campaign has hit back at an AP report on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meetings with private individuals. According to the report, 85 of 154 meetings were with donors to the Clinton Foundation.
The Clinton team argues that Clinton met with thousands of people, not just those 154, and that the AP numbers are out of context and cherry-picked. According to Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, most of those meetings were with people who either deserved special access or were pushing unobjectionable causes. Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon echoes that assessment.
That argument is not a strong one.
A number of Clinton’s meetings were with people noted for their philanthropy and good works. Among those she met with were Nobel Peace Prize recipients Elie Wiesel and Muhammad Yunus, actor Ben Affleck, and Nancy Mahon of MAC AIDS, a charity run by MAC Cosmetics. It doesn’t appear that the purpose of most of these meetings was criminal or even ignoble. Not all donations to the Clinton Foundation were intended to grease the sale of uranium production capacity to Russia.
The problem isn’t that the meetings themselves were improper, but that arranging them may have been facilitated by contributions to the Clinton Foundation. The question not addressed by the Clinton campaign is whether other, equally worthy philanthropists and organization heads had the same chance of meeting the secretary as did foundation donors.
The question isn’t whether the games Clinton played with supplicants were good or bad, but whether people had to pay to play.
The currency of power is access. The Clinton campaign has argued that the real issue is who met with Clinton and what happened in those meetings. Her critics argue that the real issue is what it took to get a meeting in the first place.
If private entities wishing to meet with the secretary of state were aware that foundation donors had a better chance of being selected for a meeting, the foundation might have distorted U.S. foreign policy. Whether it did is unknowable, but ethical standards and barriers exist precisely because it can be so difficult to determine the impact of preferential access.
Quid pro quo is likewise almost impossible to prove. Hence again the importance of ethical standards. The news of this episode is not that a crime occurred or that official favors were granted where they should not have been, but that the intersection between the Clintons, their foundation and the State Department was an ethical fog floating over an ethical swamp.
The Clintons have promised to disassociate themselves from their foundation if they move back into the White House. Cynics would argue that at that point, the foundation would have served its purpose and could be allowed to fold. Whether that’s true, the cutting of ties can’t come too soon or be too complete.
Whatever its good works, the Clinton Foundation has made them look sleazy. If good government is the goal, how we do things is as important as what we do. Clinton is under an ethical cloud of her own making; the right-wing conspiracy has only had to point to it, not create it. She shouldn’t wait to cut her ties to the foundation. The time to do that is now.