The first thing you need to know about the Clinton Foundation is that it's not, contrary to what Donald Trump said last week, "the most corrupt enterprise in political history." It's not even close. Nor is it, as Trump also claimed, "Watergate all over again." The Republican candidate has a gift for hyperbole; he doesn't know much about history.
But, as with Hillary Clinton's ongoing email controversy, the foundation stories are still troubling, because they reflect a stubborn unwillingness by the Democratic nominee to listen to her critics – feeding the widespread suspicion among voters that she's not trustworthy.
The furor is tragic, too, because it has given a bad name to an otherwise successful philanthropic enterprise – one that has helped save millions of lives around the world.
Even before Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, it was clear that her family's charitable enterprise, which depended heavily on donations from foreign governments and corporations, was a potential problem.
"Foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton Foundation as a means to gain favor with the secretary of state," then-Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) warned at the time.
Lugar and other senators urged the foundation to ban all foreign donations, but the Clintons decided not to go that far. Instead, they agreed to clear new foreign donations with the State Department and to disclose all their donors. Their intention, Hillary Clinton said, was "to avoid even the appearance … of a conflict."
In practice, though, several of the Clinton foundations didn't comply fully with their own rules until their lapses became public last year. And it's now clear they failed the "appearance" test too.
Emails uncovered thanks to a conservative group's lawsuit show that Doug Band, who helped create the Clinton Global Initiative, sought access to State Department officials for Clinton Foundation donors.
In some cases, Band didn't get what he was after. (Los Angeles entertainment executive Casey Wasserman wanted a U.S. visa for a British soccer player with a criminal record; no dice.) In at least one case, he did – but that was a meeting for the crown prince of Bahrain, a U.S. ally who would have gotten his appointment eventually without the extra help.
Still, the emails revealed an assumption on Band's part – and some donors', too – that contributions to the Clintons' charitable work should move them to the head of the line.
It's not a pretty picture when contributions give donors privileged access to members of Congress. It's even less appetizing when money seems to promise special access to American diplomats.
Granted, there's no evidence that any Clinton Foundation donors got tangible favors in exchange for their generosity. Clinton may have been close to the mark when she said last week, "I know there's a lot of smoke, and there's no fire."
But that's still a problem. A good synonym for "smoke" in this context is "appearance" – exactly what Clinton promised to avoid.
Meanwhile, the Clintons have taken some steps to allay concerns – while insisting nothing was wrong in the first place.
Bill Clinton has announced that if his wife is elected president, he will resign from the boards of the Clinton Foundation and its affiliate, the Clinton Health Access Initiative. The Clintons' daughter Chelsea will remain on both boards.
The Clinton Foundation will stop accepting foreign donations and corporate donations; the health initiative, which depends heavily on foreign government funds, will not.
But those limited measures won't solve the whole problem. Donors and fundraisers will still be tempted to see the foundations as a channel for currying favor with the new president if Clinton is elected.
Here's one modest further step recommended by Norman L. Eisen, President Obama's former ethics officer: Clinton should sign a strong ethics agreement barring herself and her closest aides from discussing foundation business with anyone, including her husband and daughter. And she should impose tough transparency rules to guarantee that if donors get access, it's quickly made public.
There's nothing preventing the Clinton campaign from announcing that kind of rule now – the sooner the better.
Until then, Clinton supporters, including reluctant Bernie Sanders voters, have been reminded again of all the things they didn't love about Hillary Clinton.
Lucky for her she's running against Donald Trump – who has been even less transparent about his own tax returns, business dealings and foreign interests than she has.
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