Obliging a Donor Is Not Necessarily Criminal
WASHINGTON -- On the subject of the Clinton Foundation and newly disclosed State Department emails, let us first dispense with Donald Trump's unhinged calls for a special prosecutor to investigate what he terms a corrupt "pay for play" arrangement.
"The amounts involved, the favors done and the significant numbers of times it was done require an expedited investigation by a special prosecutor immediately, immediately, immediately," Trump proclaimed.
Actually, the facts so far don't come close to special prosecutor territory. The "favors done" -- the supposed quo for the Clinton Foundation quid -- appear pretty meager. Doug Band, the Bill Clinton aide and then-foundation official, asked Hillary Clinton's State Department aides for occasional help on behalf of folks who had written checks to the foundation or associated entities: a meeting with a crown prince here ("good friend of ours," Band noted), a favor for a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman there ("key guy ... to us," Band observed).
But for the most part, the Band missives produced ... nothing. The crown prince of Bahrain got his meeting, but there's every reason to think that would have happened anyway.
For his part, foundation donor -- oh, and by the way, international celebrity -- Bono struck out when he asked for help figuring out who to contact at NASA to stream his band's concerts to the International Space Station. So did a sports entertainment executive whose charity gave millions to the foundation and who wanted visa assistance for a British soccer player with a criminal history.
"Makes me nervous to get involved but I'll ask," Clinton aide Huma Abedin responded to Band's request -- expediting an interview at the embassy in London -- on the soccer player. "Then don't," Band replied, and that seems to have been the end of the matter. Where's the crime, exactly?
But there are other, more pertinent and reasonable questions, to ask here: Why, oh why, since the Clintons know their activities will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny -- since, as Clinton partisans claim, with some justification, she is pilloried for conduct for which others receive a pass -- do they continue to operate in a manner that opens them to attack by their enemies?
Specifically, why -- given that the notion of another run for the presidency wasn't exactly off the table -- did Clinton (and the staff that was supposed to be looking after her interests) not erect an impenetrable wall between foundation and State?
After all, it's not as if the prospect of questions about self-dealing did not occur at the time. The December 2008 agreement between the foundation and the Obama administration cites the need to "ensure that the activities of the foundation, however beneficial, do not create conflicts or the appearance of conflict."
One way to understand what happened here is to ask whether the favors that Band and others requested from the Clinton State Department would have been sought -- and, to the extent they were, would have been granted -- even if the Clinton Foundation had never come into existence.
In the Clintons' world, as in that of many politicians, the lines blur to the point of invisibility: between donor and friend, between present role and past (or future) utility. Did Hillary Clinton have "time to spare" for Maureen White based on her $75,000 check to the foundation -- or because White was a State Department adviser on humanitarian issues, or because she was a major Democratic fundraiser and Clinton's 2008 finance co-chair?
Did SlimFast founder S. Daniel Abraham get an immediate 15 minutes with Clinton because he'd donated millions to the foundation -- or because Abraham has a long-standing involvement with the Middle East, or because he is one of the Democrats' biggest donors and a former Hillary Clinton bundler? Abraham has given $2 million this election to a super-PAC supporting Clinton.
The imperative to accommodate donors like these existed separate from their usefulness to the foundation. The natural instinct of the smart politician -- an instinct and activity not unique to Clinton -- is to accommodate donors to the extent permissible.
Yet she was the secretary of state, not an elected official. Her husband's simultaneous role at the foundation presented an inherently dangerous situation that called for extreme caution. She knew she was, or could become, a political target.
And she has, once again, given her enemies the ammunition they are only too delighted to use against her.
(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group