High-level aides to Hillary Clinton's campaign acknowledged the political problem created by her family foundation's acceptance of donations from foreign governments and considered stopping the contributions before the official launch of her presidential bid, according to newly leaked emails.
Joel Benenson, now Clinton's senior strategist, acknowledged in February 2015 that the former secretary of state would be "very vulnerable" to attacks over the Clinton Foundation's foreign contributions, which he said would be viewed as "unseemly" by Republicans and some Democrats, according to a hacked email chain released Tuesday by WikiLeaks.
Benenson, who was reacting to a Wall Street Journal article about increasing foreign gifts to the foundation two months before the official launch of her campaign, suggested that the foundation "immediately" stop accepting such contributions.
"I will leave all the defensive things to those who have and know the data for pushback. But there is a much larger strategic question that we need to resolve and stop this from spreading beyond today and probably tomorrow. And that is how quickly foundation stops," Benenson wrote. "Even if we don't announce it immediately, we may want to stop immediately. Obviously, doing this in the context of an overall strategy we can stick with is better than dealing with brush fires."
"Sorry to be clear - foundation stops -- means stop taking foreign gov't money," Benenson clarified in a follow-up email. "Is that possible? If not we're going to be very vulnerable on that throughout and I think our opponents and some on our side will say at is unseemly for a potential U.S. President taking money from foreign governments for her private foundation."
WikiLeaks has been posting hacked emails from the inbox of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. The email chain leaked this week shows Clinton loyalists grappling with the issue of foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, which has raised ethical questions about the influence foreign powers could have on a prospective Clinton administration.
Bill Clinton said in August that the family foundation would stop accepting foreign or corporate donations if his wife was elected president after emails released by the State Department showed Clinton aides keeping contact with foundation donors during her tenure as a cabinet official in the Obama administration.
But the new emails show that aides discussed the prospect of stopping or limiting the contributions even before Clinton began running for the White House. Podesta floated reinstating limits on foreign contributions that were in place during Clinton's time at the State Department.
"Practical to reimpose State Department rules? Buy us anything? Mostly those are Q's for Cheryl and Denis," Podesta wrote in response to Benenson, referring to Cheryl Mills, Clinton's former chief of staff at State, and Dennis Cheng, Clinton's national finance chair who worked at the State Department and, later, the foundation.
"That's what I'm thinking," Benenson wrote to Podesta. It is unclear whether the Clinton allies ever came to a consensus on the matter; the chain ends with Mills writing, "Will revert."
The foreign contributions that the foundation could accept were limited during Clinton's time as secretary of state under an ethics agreement with the Obama administration. However, the charity still accepted millions of dollars from foreign governments during that time, including one donation that violated the ethics agreement, the Washington Post reported last year.
Foreign contributions increased followed Clinton's exit from the State Department, according to the Wall Street Journal article flagged by Merrill, which found that the charity had raised at least $48 million from foreign governments since its founding.
"Most of the recent government grants were directed to a Clinton Foundation program/project," Cheng wrote in response to the Journal article, providing context for the contributions. "For example (and we should verify with the Foundation if we are sharing this publicly): Germany's donation was to support CF's agricultural initiative in Africa. Norway I believe was to support CF's climate work. Canada was for the Foundation's work in Haiti, I believe."
"These countries were definitely specifically for a CF program: Norway, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands/Qatar was for CGI," Cheng wrote. "The only governments that donated to the endowment were: Saudi Arabia, Oman, and UAE [United Arab Emirates]."
The email messages show the Clinton confidantes talking about using foreign contributions to projects associated with former presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter to push back on criticism of the Clinton Foundation.
"To answer earlier questions on this chain -- we looked into foreign govt donations to former presidential libraries and foundations a while back. See memo attached," wrote Heather Samuelson, a longtime Clinton aide. "Will update to include Bush 43. Bush 41 received funds from Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Oman, UAE for his library, including while his son was in office. Carter Center has received funds from Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Netherlands, etc. Unclear if they publicly designate anywhere whether it goes to endowment v. specific programming. Looking into that now."
The WikiLeaks releases, which U.S. officials say are connected to the Russian government, have contained a number of revelations about the Clinton Foundation. A memo released last week revealed financial ties between the foundation and Teneo, a consulting firm founded by Clinton insiders.
The Daily Caller also reported on a leaked memo showing that Hillary Clinton preferred that the foundation continue to accept donations from foreign governments, despite the charity's decision to cease doing so.
The Clinton Foundation has been rolling back its operation as Clinton runs for president, laying off staffers and putting an end to the annual Clinton Global Initiative event. Bill Clinton has also said he will step down from his position on the charity's board if his wife wins election next week.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.