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It’s time to take the ‘Clinton’ out of the Clinton Foundation

It’s time to take the ‘Clinton’ out of the Clinton Foundation
Former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea are shown around an herb garden in May of 2015 by pupils and staff of a school in Nairobi, Kenya that receives support from the Clinton Foundation. (Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

Once again Hillary Clinton is having to answer embarrassing questions about what Sen. Bernie Sanders once called "your damn emails." This time it's about emails from Clinton's tenure as secretary of State that show that her office wasn't as insulated from the Clinton Foundation as the public was led to believe.

The emails — obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch from the State Department — do not prove, as Donald Trump has charged, that Clinton did "a lot of things" for the foundation's donors. In fact, requests from donors were often rebuffed or ignored. For example, nothing became of a request from a donor for assistance in obtaining a visa for a British soccer player with a criminal record. Nor did the rock star Bono, a donor to the Clinton Global Initiative (a project of the Clinton Foundation), receive assistance in broadcasting a concert to the International Space Station.

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Still, it seems clear from the emails that friends and benefactors of the Clinton Foundation had special entrée to the Clinton State Department. For example, in 2009 Douglas Band, a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton who was involved in the creation of the Clinton Global Initiative, emailed Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department, to advise her that the crown prince of Bahrain (a "good friend of ours," Band wrote) was seeking a meeting with the secretary of State. (Bahrain had participated in the Clinton Global Initiative by committing to spend $32 million on a scholarship program.) Abedin replied that the prince had already sought a meeting through normal channels but two days later confirmed that a meeting had indeed been arranged. "If u see him, let him know," she wrote.

Not only does that sound like special access, but it leads people to wonder — quite legitimately — whether any other favors come with the deal. There's no smoking gun evidence in these emails that government money was doled out to donors or that foreign policy was changed to satisfy them, but you can't blame Americans for wondering. And that's the problem.

It's possible that the crown prince would have been welcomed by Clinton in any event — Bahrain is a U.S. ally. But according to a tally this week by the Associated Press, at least 85 of 154 people "from private interests" who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department had donated to the foundation or pledged commitments to its international programs.

The Clinton campaign has objected to the AP report on the grounds that it omits meetings with foreign diplomats and U.S. government officials and covers only part of Clinton's tenure. Even so, the overlap is striking and contributes to the impression that a donation to the Clinton Foundation during Clinton's time as secretary of State was a down payment on access if not on government action.

That impression would only be exacerbated if Clinton were elected president and the Clinton Foundation continued to exist — even if a President Hillary Clinton had no formal connection to it. Bill Clinton already has recognized that the possibility of his wife's election requires a change in the way the foundation operates. Last week he announced that if Hillary Clinton were elected president, the foundation would no longer accept foreign or corporate donations and that he would resign from its board. But that remedy is both too much and not enough.

It would be too much in the sense that a worldwide effort such as the Clinton Foundation might be hampered in its efforts to combat disease and malnutrition if it had to rely only on donations from inside the United States. But the solution might be too little if powerful individuals in this country could continue to donate to a philanthropic organization in the hopes that it would endear them to the family of a president of the United States and a former president.

We would propose a differently solution: that the foundation continue but that the Clinton family sever its connection to it so long as Hillary Clinton is in the White House. That means not only Bill and Hillary Clinton but also Chelsea Clinton, who now serves as the foundation's vice chair.

The Clinton Foundation and its 11 constituent organizations have accomplished much in eradicating disease, alleviating poverty and improving the environment. Their work can continue, but without their involvement. That would be liberating for both the foundation and for Hillary Clinton.

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