The Wall Street Journal reported this past week that the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has quietly dropped its ban on foreign contributions and is accepting donations from the governments of “the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, Germany, and a Canadian government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline.” The Journal’s conclusion: Since 2001 “the foundation has raised at least $48 million from overseas governments.”
Needless to say, the gargantuan troll-like conflict of interest that arises as soon as the foundation of the leading candidate for the presidency of the United States begins accepting money from overseas is apparent to every sentient being on the planet except members of the Clinton family and the growing number of advisers, consultants, strategists, pollsters, groupies, allies, and hangers-on whose livelihood depends on that family’s political success. “These contributions,” the foundation said in a statement to the Journal, “are helping improve the lives of millions of people across the world, for which we are grateful.”
What I love about this statement is its flip shamelessness, the way in which its airy sentimental public relations gobbledygook is both a denial of what is obviously a corrupt practice and an implicit endorsement of it. I do not doubt for a moment that the Clinton flack who led the email chain that came up with this blistering retort to the Journal is indeed “grateful” for every single one of the donations that foreign governments are making to his organization, because life in Manhattan and North Caldwell, New Jersey, is very expensive and these kids are not going to be paying for college on their own you know. If a little charity on the part of his excellency Sultan Qaboos of Oman can help pay for the lake house in Connecticut and the monthly installment on that brand new Tesla you’ve been eyeing through the window of the store on 25th Street, well, what’s the harm? The programs you run—“transforming communities,” “creating partnerships of purpose,” devising other alliterative slogans—“improve the lives of millions of people across the world.” OK, maybe not “millions of people,” but certainly the lives of the oligarchs and monarchs and functionaries and foreign agents who sign checks to the Clintons and can count on reciprocity, not to mention the lives of one very special pair of grandparents, their beloved daughter, her husband (especially when Goldman Sachs is footing the bill for losses at his hedge fund), and beautiful Charlotte.
In its 14 years of existence the Clinton Foundation has raised a sum approaching $2 billion. A McClatchy analysis found that 40 percent of contributions in the last decade have come from foreign sources. “It’s a massive sum of money—though no one has done a story yet on how overseas programs they fund have worked,” Maggie Haberman of the New York Times noted on Twitter. Gee I wonder why. It’s almost as though the political press is morally and intellectually disarmed whenever it hears words like “global dialogue” and “wellness” and “economic development” and “women and girls,” as if the gritty, cynical, I’ve-seen-it-all correspondents for our major newspapers and networks turn to bubbling bittersweet goo as soon as some Clinton flack tells them, “We are working with global partners to build an evidence-based case for the full participation of women and girls in the 21st century,” and their eyes fall on a picture of a cute, vibrant, and diverse group of young women surrounding the aging potentate and her daughter and former NBC News special correspondent. What it would take the Post or the Times to dispatch a reporter to Ishmaelia or wherever to examine, in skeptical detail, just where the Clinton money is going, to report on the precise state of the President Peter Mutharika Water Reclamation Plant and Convention Center, is beyond me. Certainly the reports from Haiti are not encouraging. Even the Journal is not clear when the Clinton Foundation dropped its ban on foreign money, a mystery the Foundation itself does not seem to be in any hurry to solve.
One can always count on the media’s herd instinct, however, and in the hours since the initial Journal scoop and the Clintons’ flagrant doubling-down on buckraking from overseas interests, a group of stories has appeared that suggests the Clintons have a big problem on their hands. A Washington Post analysis “found substantial overlap between the Clinton political machinery and the foundation,” and noted that “nearly half of the major donors who are backing ready for Hillary, a group promoting her 2016 presidential bid, as well as nearly half of the bundlers from her 2008 campaign, have given at least $10,000 to the foundation, either on their own or through foundations or companies they run.” What do you think they want for all of that money? An Eid al-Fatr card?
McClatchy draws our attention to donors such as “Mohammed Al-Amoudi, a billionaire businessman who lives in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, retired German race car driver Michael Schumacher, and Denis O’Brien, the Irish chairman of Digicel phone company,” who “each donated between $5 million to $10 million.” You know, regular folks; American-Gothic types; the sort of common people who so puzzle Clinton that she is asking more than 200 policy wonks for advice on how to talk to them.
How I would love to have been in the room with Bill Clinton and Doug Band and God-only-knows-who-else as the former president sweet-talked Herr Schumacher, telling him stories of his childhood and presidency and subsequent career, confiding his preferred cigar brands, mixing up funny vignettes with economic and political analysis, dropping hints at Hillary’s political future and impending ascension to the status of Sun-Queen, dispensing tips on vegan dieting, interspersing his unending monologue with deadpan treacle like “it’s for our children” and “we’re all one big global village” and “you should see what they’re doing for women’s health in Rwanda,” as the “retired German race car driver” kept his mouth contorted in a tight grin, ready to mention the quo for the quid, feeling like a big man for gaining proximity to the biggest big man of them all.
And to think that scenes like this have played out in conference rooms and private jets and luxury hotels around the world for over a decade, with promises exchanged and pledges made and deals negotiated and influence peddled, and no one really has the faintest idea of any of the details except members of Bill Clinton’s innermost circle. What beguiles and amazes is the scope of the self-dealing, the effrontery of the horse-trading, the utterly earnest way in which the Clintons are able to transform hobnobbing with and skimming off the global elite into a parody of “philanthropy.”
I also find it revealing, though, that the Clintons seemed to be caught off guard by the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, that the insistence by Clinton Foundation spokesmen that there is no story here and that it is “a false choice” to suggest a conflict of interest when foreign billionaires hand money to the presidential frontrunner has assumed an increasingly desperate character. What the scrambling exposes is that this political organization is as aloof and tone-deaf as ever.
Clinton appears to have decided to remain secluded for as long as possible so that her approval numbers do not plunge, but I wonder whether this strategy is as sound as she seems to think it is. It’s not as though her non-candidacy candidacy is really producing results. Her book was a flop, she stepped in it with the “dead broke” comments, continuing the paid speeches and chartered flights plays into the caricature of a tired comfortable rich politician, all of the infighting is being played out in the media, some liberals are wondering whether it really would be a good thing for her to become the first non-incumbent in memory to waltz into the nomination unopposed, and now she faces the prospect of two years of questions about transactions and commitments and actions by her husband and his cronies.
What the Clintons have done in the years after they left the White House will be an important part of the “narrative” of the 2016 campaign, of the tale Republicans market to the public of a venal and corrupt and bizarre family so bent on wealth and power that they are more interested in catering to rich foreigners than to the average American. I don’t know if the public will buy it—no one knows—but I do know that Hillary Clinton as a candidate and as the chief executive of a massive political organization has shown herself to be seriously deficient in the methods and skills required for a successful presidential campaign. She lost before, she’s flubbing now, and people are beginning to recognize that she can always lose again. It’s not the sleaze so much as her clumsy pronounced absence of style, her hesitant maladroit uneasy responses to tough questions posed by serious critics. It won’t be corruption alone that does Hillary in. It will be her cluelessness.