Clinton Defends Foundation: Smoke, But 'No Fire'

Clinton Defends Foundation: Smoke, But 'No Fire'
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In the first media interview Hillary Clinton has granted in nearly a month, the candidate defended the Clinton Foundation, said there are “no excuses” for her self-inflicted email mistakes, and repeated her charge that Donald Trump is “peddling bigotry, prejudice and paranoia.”

Clinton is ahead in the polls and Electoral College math. She leads Trump in fundraising and has ample stores of cash to advertise in swing states. And her late-summer barnstorming with voters has been scheduled at a confident, leisurely clip.

But in a telephone interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper Wednesday night, Clinton went on defense to protect her edge in key battleground states as Trump and his new advisers retool the GOP nominee’s general election strategy.

She said Trump may be trying to soften some of his harsh policies, rewrite his checkered business record or erase his caustic rhetoric, but Clinton predicted voters wouldn’t be fooled.

Clinton vowed to repeat her attacks on Trump at a campaign event Thursday in Reno, Nev.

To maintain her current advantages in the polls, Clinton needs to keep the public’s attention trained on Trump’s negatives, rather than on a growing collection of unwelcome headlines about herself and her husband, which she telephoned the cable news channel to challenge.

 “I know there’s a lot of smoke, and there’s no fire,” she told Cooper.

She disputed an Associated Press report this week that linked some Clinton Foundation donors to government meetings that took place when she was secretary of state. Many of those meetings occurred with “highly respected global leaders” because of their status, she said, not because of their generosity to the Clintons’ charitable foundation.

“These were people I was proud to meet with,” she said, mentioning the late Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel and Nobel laureate and economist Muhammad Yunus.  To suggest otherwise is “absurd,” she said.

Sounding exasperated, she defended the Clinton Foundation for its transparency, which she argued exceeds the industry standard. And at every turn in the telephone conversation, Clinton returned to critiques of her opponent.

“You know more about the foundation than you know about anything concerning Donald Trump, his business, his tax returns. I think it’s remarkable,” she said, her voice rising.

“I’m proud of the work my husband started and he did. We provided a massive amount of information,” she argued. “And Donald Trump doesn’t release his tax returns and is indebted to foreign banks and foreign lenders!”

Under fire from the news media and Republicans this week for not holding a news conference in more than 260 days, Clinton expressed dismay when Cooper asked when she would do so. “I’m talking to you right now, Anderson,” she said.

Asked a second time, Clinton ducked. “Stay tuned. There will be a lot of different opportunities for me to talk to the press, as well as continuing to talk to the public,” she told Cooper.

Analysts say there’s an explanation for Clinton’s reluctance to engage with the media so far. As long as the race remains focused on Trump, she will stick with a strategy she believes helped create her current lead, even as undecided voters, especially young adults and women, describe misgivings about backing “the lesser of two evils.”

“This election has become a referendum on Trump,” explained Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin, who conducted surveys for Bernie Sanders during the primary. “[Trump] dominates the news, even when Clinton gets less than favorable media coverage.”

It is too early to know if the GOP nominee’s recent efforts to sand down his sharp edges when it comes to immigration and race will broaden his base of support. He called Clinton a “bigot” Wednesday night in Mississippi, and his explanations of his immigration and deportation policies have been a moving target since Saturday.

Trump has only begun to advertise in battleground states, and his fundraising and grassroots organization lag behind Clinton’s measurable head start. And the first of three televised presidential debates is a month away.

A lot can happen in the final two and a half months before Nov. 8, especially with a Republican standard-bearer who dominates the news and has no compunctions about hammering away at his opponent’s vulnerabilities.

If there is a risk for Clinton embedded in the pay-for-play headlines and drip-drip-drip of email disclosures, it’s with backers who are the least inspired by her candidacy, yet skeptical about Trump. If segments of the electorate lose confidence in her at the same time Trump manages to quiet anxieties that he’s temperamentally erratic and dangerous on the world stage, the race could tighten.

“The debates will determine the selection,” predicted GOP pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz. He said Clinton, even with her weaknesses, remains “a stronger candidate at this time than her opponent. But all that can change with a single response to a single question.”

Republicans, including in Iowa, where Clinton and Trump are effectively tied in the RealClearPolitics average, focused this week on Clinton’s relative inaccessibility, describing her as the candidate with something to hide.

“In the 263 days since Hillary Clinton has held a press conference, there have been more scandals than most politicians have in a lifetime,” said Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “Clinton needs to let the media past the rope line and explain for herself her own unethical behavior."

The specific “unethical behavior” Clinton’s critics denounce is broad brush rather than specific or proven. There is no smoking gun evidence of a quid pro quo between Clinton Foundation donors and benefits or value extended to donors by the State Department under Clinton.

However, this week former President Clinton conceded changes were necessary to try to reduce appearances of conflicts -- if his wife is elected president. He announced to staff he would step down from the Clinton Foundation board and said the 15-year-old charitable organization would no longer accept donations from international and corporate donors. The Clinton Global Initiative, which is an annual ideas forum, will host its final such event next month. Chelsea Clinton’s future role is unclear.

The Democratic nominee told CNN the changes would take effect if she’s president rather that while she’s a candidate because of what she termed the “unique circumstances” presented by a family foundation that would be tied -- beginning in January -- to a sitting president as well as a former president.

If there is one group of potential voters within Clinton’s base for whom the trust quotient matters most, it may be younger voters. During the primaries they favored Sanders for president by large margins.

Many likely voters ages 18 to 30 say they oppose Trump because they see him as racially intolerant and temperamentally risky, according to polls. One worry for Clinton would be if millennial voters decide to stay home on Election Day, or throw their weight behind a third-party presidential candidate.

“First impressions are important and millennials’ first general impressions of Clinton were formed early in the contest,” said American Enterprise Institute public opinion analyst and senior fellow Karlyn Bowman. Encountering the Clinton presidency of the 1990s through the lens of history, many young people in 2016 confronted decades-old accounts of secrecy, investigations, impeachment and acquittal, as well as Clinton’s record in the Obama administration.

Sanders, now supportive of his Democratic rival, initially seeded doubts about his primary opponent by criticizing her ties to Wall Street CEOs and financial donors, and for her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, transcripts of which she refused to release. 

“Those early impressions have only been reinforced by the latest stories” in the news, Bowman added.

What has pushed many younger voters to support Clinton is their opposition to Trump, not a commitment to a revolution in government she might deliver as Obama’s successor.

Indeed, on Wednesday night, Sanders launched “Our Revolution,” a political nonprofit organization he described during a video address to his iconoclastic followers.

“The Clinton campaign still needs to continue to work hard to reach out to millennials and reassure them of her progressive credentials,” Tulchin said, arguing the nominee has to persuade the young and influential bloc of voters about values she shares with them.

“The debates will help her do that by setting up a nice contrast with Trump in a very visible format,” he added.

Luntz agreed. “It’s not that they don’t like her,” he said. “It’s that they don’t trust her. And trust matters to them.”

Misgivings about both presidential nominees were evident in a July GenForward survey of adults ages 18 to 30, conducted by the University of Chicago and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The survey of 1,940 young adults was constructed to capture how race and ethnicity impact young people’s views; it had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Seventy-three percent of those surveyed said Clinton was not honest and trustworthy. Evaluations of her among whites were the lowest, and her highest marks came from African-Americans respondents. Trump earned similarly low assessments among young adults: 78 percent said he was not honest and trustworthy.

Within Trump’s total, 91 percent of African-Americans, 81 percent of Asian-Americans, 89 percent of Hispanics, and 70 percent of whites between 18 and 30 years old said they did not trust the GOP nominee.

The Clinton campaign says it has plans beginning in September to mobilize young people on college campuses to register to vote, cast ballots early for Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine, and rally peers to follow suit.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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