Hillary Clinton is very lucky that she is facing off against a Republican presidential nominee who, week after week, demonstrates he is not ready for the political big leagues. She has a big vulnerability with which a sharper opponent could make real mischief — and I am not talking about weird right-wing fantasies about Vince Foster's "murder" or transparently partisan investigations into the Benghazi incident. I am talking about something much more simple, real and close to home: the Clinton Foundation.
After she and her husband left the White House in 2001, they created a philanthropic foundation that, as the organization's website states, aims to "convene businesses, governments, NGOs, and individuals to improve global health and wellness, increase opportunity for girls and women, reduce childhood obesity, create economic opportunity and growth, and help communities address the effects of climate change."
To advance those efforts, the Clinton Foundation has raised huge amounts of money from major donors, both in the United States and abroad. Much good has been done for a lot of desperate people around the world with that money. All those dollars, though, did not come to this particular foundation because there was nobody else doing good works; those dollars poured in because of Clinton clout, Clinton influence and Clinton connections. No doubt good intentions were involved, but, at least for some donors, there was also an interest in getting access to a former president of the United States and a possible future president — or at least a secretary of State.
The Associated Press looked through lists of the people who got meetings with Hillary Clinton during her years running the State Department and found 85 Clinton Foundation contributors who, together, donated $156 million. Twenty of them gave more than $1 million. The Clinton campaign reacted by calling the AP report a "distorted portrayal" that omits 1,700 meeting with other folks, including world leaders.
Unsurprisingly, the Trump campaign had a different reaction. Donald Trump took the news as proof of "criminality" on Clinton's part, a "pay for play" system within the secretary of State's office that should be investigated immediately by a special prosecutor. Trump's most aggressive hit man, Rudolph W. Giuliani, called it a "Clinton family racketeering enterprise." As usual, the two New Yorkers are swinging wild with a sledgehammer when they should be using a stiletto.
There is not an ounce of proof suggesting criminality or racketeering, no indication that Secretary Clinton performed special favors for foundation donors. And, yes, as her campaign says, she spent most of her time with many hundreds of people who never sent gifts to her family's philanthropy. Nevertheless, there are plenty of Clinton allies who are troubled by her ties to the foundation because it simply looks bad.
In politics, donations buy access. Senators and members of Congress spend an obscene share of their days in office begging for campaign contributions and then many more hours hosting those contributors in private meetings. A secretary of State should be above that. Even though Clinton, herself, did not solicit donations, her husband did and, especially when the money came from foreign powers, that raises concerns both about ethics and foreign policy. Appearances are important, even if intentions are pure.
About this issue, the Clintons' old buddy, campaign guru James Carville, said he could understand the human impulse to get money from any willing party in order to heal the sick and save the planet. But putting on his hat as a political advisor, he said the foundation should have avoided donations from foreign governments and leaders if only because it gave ammunition to the Clintons' adversaries.
Bill Clinton says he will cut ties to the foundation if his wife is elected and the organization's ongoing work will be farmed out to other people. That obviously is the right thing to do, but it should have been done before now — not just when Hillary began her campaign for president, but when she took charge of American foreign policy in 2009.
Bill and Hillary may have thought that they would be given some slack because their foundation is on the side of the angels, but they should have known better. In politics, no good deed goes unpunished.