Clinton Foundation Fundraising Gives Hillary Haters A New Target, Even If Dots Don't Connect

Election '16

The political world is filled with smart people doing stupid stuff.

That's the real takeaway from The New York Times’report this past week on ethical shadows left by the Clintons when Bill raised millions a decade ago for their foundation from international uranium investors whose firm, which grew to include a Wyoming mine, was eventually acquired by Russia after Hillary became Secretary of State. The deal was approved by nine federal agencies, but the State Department didn't do so until after Clinton left that post.

The details are knotty—and if the Hillary campaign's rebuttals are correct, then the Times' report, based on a soon-to-be-published anti-Hillary book by a right-wing author, is far more political smoke than nuclear fire. But looming above the facts is an obvious question: shouldn’t the Clintons have taken extra steps to avoid such a predictable line of attack?

Republicans, from talk radio hosts such as Hugh Hewitt, to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to 2016 candidates—pounced, with Romney saying that it “looks like bribery,” to Marco Rubio voicing concerns that her campaign donors could buy favors if elected. Needless to say, these protests over political influence buying come as most 2016 GOP wannabees are in Las Vegas this weekend to meet with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of a handful of right-wing billionaires bank-rolling candidates.

Republicans have been saying that Hillary’s campaign as a champion of everyday Americans is a joke, only re-enforced by this latest revelation of international wheeling and dealing for multi-million dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation. The Times report adds a new storyline that curiously resembles the GOP’s attacks on President Obama’s prospective nuclear weapons deal with Iran: the Clintons purportedly helped an American adversary obtain a growing nuclear stockpile.

The report’s facts are more sketchy than that—and stretch back to the George W. Bush administration when the U.S. and Russia had much friendlier relations and were cooperating on a range of nuclear disarmament initiatives. What is clear is that in 2005 Bill helped a longtime major donor to the Clinton Foundation curry favor from Kazakhstan to buy uranium mines in that country, which Russia eventually acquired. That happened several years after Bill’s colleague in philanthropy sold his stake in the firm in 2007. In between that sale and Russia's acquisition, the company, Uranium One, bought the mineral rights to a big Wyoming uranium mine.

If the story ended there, it would be old news. After all, someone who sells a house can't be responsible for a new owner’s expansion. But it doesn’t. Where Hillary enters this picture is not her 2008 presidential campaign, where Bill’s Kazakhstan trek briefly made headlines, but while she was Secretary of State. According to the Times, various federal agencies, including hers, had to approve the deal because some of the privately owned uranium assets that Russia bought included the Wyoming mine.

The government approved the deal after Hillary left the State Department, as did Canada. But in June 2010, when she was Secretary of State, Bill was paid $500,000 for a speech in Moscow from “from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock,” the Timessaid. Its report implies that big fee was a wink-and-nod gratuity for the Clinton Foundation that Hillary would know about, possibly encouraging her to support the deal if it ever crossed her desk.

That implication is fortified, according to the Times, because the Foundation apparently did not disclose all of its foreign donations, as Hillary pledged to do before becoming Secretary of State. On Thursday, the day the Times story appeared online, Reuters reported it would refile older tax returns and undergo an internal audit.  

Hillary's 2016 spokesman, Brian Fallon, said all of this was a right-wing conspiracy connecting dots that don’t add up. He issued a detailed rebuttal, saying: Hillary was not involved in the State Department review; The Clinton Foundation donor sold his interest in the uranium firm three years before Russia bought a majority stake; another donor in the story said he never spoke to the Clintons about the deal; the Times downplays that eight other federal agencies beside State approved the deal; and final State Department approval came after Hillary stepped down.

“There’s a new book out—written by a former Republican operative with ties to a Koch-funded organization—that uses allegations and conspiracy theories to stitch together a false narrative about Hillary without producing a single shred of evidence,” wrote John Podesta, Chairman, Hillary for America, in an e-mail Friday.

This may be yet another example of Hill getting sideswiped by Bill—in this case by his manic foundation fundraising. But even if that’s true—and the closer you look, the more it appears that way—both Clintons are supposed to be smarter than that. They know there is an anti-Hillary industry out there. They know in politics that appearance of ethical conflicts, even if false, can be as damaging as the real thing. They know their foundation has been a big target for right-wingers for years. And they knew that Hillary would run again.

In 2013, the Times had a front-page report detailing how the Clinton Foundation's efforts to “combat AIDS, obesity and poverty” had a fundraising strategy that leaned heavily on corporations, including selling advice to one Wall St. firm that collapsed. The Clintons tried to create rules to steer clear of controversy, the Times noted, but it was not sufficient—as it had multi-million-dollar debts. “Efforts to insulate the foundation from potential conflicts have highlighted just how difficult it can be to disentangle the Clinton’s charity work from Mr. Clinton’s moneymaking ventures and Mrs. Clinton’s political future,” it wrote.    

The bottom line is Hillary the 2016 candidate has to do better. She can’t have unethical accusations shadowing her campaign—giving Republicans more fuel for attacks even as their candidates unethically coddle the GOP’s billionaire donors. Her campaign already has been undercut by her use of a private e-mail account while Secretary of State, raising accusations of her penchant for secrecy and elitism. Now Bill's track record of taking the money and running, instead of restraining himself, and the foundation's sloppy record-keeping is creating complications.

It hardly matters that other former presidents and heads of state, such as George H.W. Bush and England's John Majors, made fortunes after they left office by working for venture capitalists and military contractors that sold weapons to foreign governments. The difference with them and the Clintons is they weren't seeking to return to the pinnacle of political power. 

The Republicans are going to throw everything they have at Hillary to try to make voters wary of her presidency. Bill’s addiction to endless foundation fundraising and sloppy record-keeping didn’t have to be giving them more ammunition. But it has.

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