Clintons Most Successful, Most Controversial ‘Power Couple’

A series of mini-scandals point to the conflicts of interest around the Clintons.

bill-clinton-hillary-clinton-fall

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argues in “The Disastrous Clinton Post-Presidency” that Bill Clinton is the reverse Jimmy Carter.

The qualities of an effective presidency do not seem to transfer onto a post-presidency. Jimmy Carter was an ineffective president who became an exemplary post-president. Bill Clinton appears to be the reverse. All sorts of unproven worst-case-scenario questions float around the web of connections between Bill’s private work, Hillary Clinton’s public role as secretary of State, the Clintons’ quasi-public charity, and Hillary’s noncompliant email system. But the best-case scenario is bad enough: The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.

The news today about the Clintons all fleshes out, in one way or another, their lack of interest in policing serious conflict-of-interest problems that arise in their overlapping roles:

  • The New York Times has a report about the State Department’s decision to approve the sale of Uranium mines to a Russian company that donated $2.35 million to the Clinton Global Initiative, and that a Russian investment bank promoting the deal paid Bill $500,000 for a speech in Moscow.
  • The Washington Post reports that Bill Clinton has received $26 million in speaking fees from entities that also donated to the Clinton Global Initiative.
  • The Washington Examiner reports, “Twenty-two of the 37 corporations nominated for a prestigious State Department award — and six of the eight ultimate winners — while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State were also donors to the Clinton family foundation.”
  • And Reuters reports, “Hillary Clinton’s family’s charities are refiling at least five annual tax returns after a Reuters review found errors in how they reported donations from governments, and said they may audit other Clinton Foundation returns in case of other errors.”

The Clinton campaign is batting down the darkest and most conspiratorial interpretation of these stories, and where this all leads remains to be seen. But the most positive interpretation is not exactly good.

Chait isn’t some Republican hack; he’s a very respected journalist on the left, although his political stances aren’t easy to categorize. Still, even as one who has reflexively disliked the Clintons going back to their arrival on the national scene a quarter century ago, none of this individually or collectively seems like a game-changer.

The notion that Clinton’s post-presidency is some sort of “disaster” is bizarre. The Clinton Global Initiative is, alongside the Gates Foundation, among the most successful newish charitable organizations on the planet. And, of course, he’s not only gotten enormously rich as one of the most in-demand public speakers but he’s helped propel his wife into a remarkably successful politician in her own right.

That CGI fundraising is going to be a modest issue for Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not new news. I’m skeptical that it’s going to amount to much, though, given the lack of a serious primary challenger and the fact that this will all be extremely old news by next November. Beyond that, as I wrote back in February, “nonprofits inevitably take money from people of questionable motivation and character” and there’s a general sense that the Initiative is doing good work. Indeed, I share that view.

The seeming conflict of interest between the activities of the CGI and Hillary’s role as Secretary of State are troubling. They took some reasonable steps to mitigate some of the conflicts but, short of shutting it down or transferring operational control during her tenure, I don’t see how they could have fixed some of these problems.

The Ukraine deal sounds rather unsavory. But, reading the NYT report, we see that “the deal had to be approved by a committee composed of representatives from a number of United States government agencies. Among the agencies that eventually signed off was the State Department.” That means that, even if Hillary knew about the connection and was motivated by sheer personal greed—and there’s no evidence presented for either—others also approved of the deal. Frankly, the bigger deal would seem that the Clintons were taking in half a mil from the Russians, period, while she was Secretary.

That Bill got $26 million in speaking fees from donors to CGI is perhaps a sign of greed. But I don’t see where there’s any corruption in it.

The fact that the likes of CISCO, Mars, Coke, TOM’s, and P&G both gave money to CGI and got nominated for awards by State doesn’t strike me as particularly interesting. There’s some general incestuousness in the “public-private partnership” relationship between US overseas aid programs, non-profits, and major corporate donors. That State and CGI have significant overlap isn’t surprising; I suspect that continues under Kerry’s tenure and also occurred during the Bush administration.

There may be legs to the Reuters story on the tax returns:

The charities’ errors generally take the form of under-reporting or over-reporting, by millions of dollars, donations from foreign governments, or in other instances omitting to break out government donations entirely when reporting revenue, the charities confirmed to Reuters.

The errors, which have not been previously reported, appear on the form 990s that all non-profit organizations must file annually with the Internal Revenue Service to maintain their tax-exempt status. A charity must show copies of the forms to anyone who wants to see them to understand how the charity raises and spends money.

The unsettled numbers on the tax returns are not evidence of wrongdoing but tend to undermine the 990s role as a form of public accountability, experts in charity law and transparency advocates told Reuters.

“If those numbers keep changing – well, actually, we spent this on this, not that on that – it really defeats the purpose,” said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency advocacy group.

For three years in a row beginning in 2010, the Clinton Foundation reported to the IRS that it received zero in funds from foreign and U.S. governments, a dramatic fall-off from the tens of millions of dollars in foreign government contributions reported in preceding years.

Those entries were errors, according to the foundation: several foreign governments continued to give tens of millions of dollars toward the foundation’s work on climate change and economic development through this three-year period. Those governments were identified on the foundation’s annually updated donor list, along with broad indications of how much each had cumulatively given since they began donating.

It doesn’t look good and the explanations offered thus far are eye-rolling:

“No charity is required to disclose their donors,” he said. “However, we voluntarily disclose our more than 300,000 donors and post our audited financial statements on our website along with the 990s for anyone to see.”

Separately, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), the foundation’s flagship program, is refiling its form 990s for at least two years, 2012 and 2013, CHAI spokeswoman Maura Daley said, describing the incorrect government grant break-outs for those two years as typographical errors.

CHAI, which is best known for providing cheaper drugs for tens of thousands of people with HIV around the world, began filing separate tax returns in 2010, and has previously refiled at least once both its 2010 and 2011 form 990s. For both those years, CHAI said its initial filings had over-reported government grants by more than $100 million.

Some experts in charity law and taxes said it was not remarkable for a charity to refile an erroneous return once in a while, but for a large, global charity to refile three or four years in a row was highly unusual.

“I’ve never seen amendment activity like that,” said Bruce Hopkins, a Kansas City lawyer who has specialized in charity law for more than four decades, referring to the CHAI filings.

Still, I doubt it will have much an impact on the race. Accounting practices make most people’s, mine included, eyes glaze over.

The Clintons are, in a real sense, the country’s first true “power couple,” in the sense that they independently had major careers. (Yes, her post-his-presidency career is almost entirely a product of his presidency. But she’s been a US Senator, serious contender for the presidency, Secretary of State, and again serious contender for the presidency regardless of the circumstances that brought her to fame.) We haven’t figured out how to deal with the inherent conflicts that arise from that and it’s going to be a bigger problem over time as highly successful men will mostly marry highly successful women and vice versa as we go forward.

Chait’s take is pretty dark:

When you are a power couple consisting of a former president and a current secretary of State and likely presidential candidate, you have the ability to raise a lot of money for charitable purposes that can do a lot of good. But some of the potential sources of donations will be looking to get something in return for their money other than moral satisfaction or the chance to hobnob with celebrities. Some of them want preferential treatment from the State Department, and others want access to a potential future Clinton administration. To run a private operation where Bill Clinton will deliver a speech for a (huge) fee and a charity that raises money from some of the same clients is a difficult situation to navigate. To overlay that fraught situation onto Hillary’s ongoing and likely future government service makes it all much harder.

And yet the Clintons paid little to no attention to this problem. Nicholas Confessore described their operation as “a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest. It ran multimillion-dollar deficits for several years, despite vast amounts of money flowing in.” Indeed, as Ryan Lizza reported in 2012, Bill Clinton seemed to see the nexus between his role and his wife’s as a positive rather than a negative:

Regardless of Bill Clinton’s personal feelings about Obama, it didn’t take him long to see the advantages of an Obama Presidency. More than anyone, he pushed Hillary to take the job of Secretary of State. “President Clinton was a big supporter of the idea,” an intimate of the Clintons told me. “He advocated very strongly for it and arguably was the tie-breaking reason she took the job.” For one thing, having his spouse in that position didn’t hurt his work at the Clinton Global Initiative. He invites foreign leaders to the initiative’s annual meeting, and her prominence in the Administration can be an asset in attracting foreign donors. “Bill Clinton’s been able to continue to be the Bill Clinton we know, in large part because of his relationship with the White House and because his wife is the Secretary of State,” the Clinton associate continued. “It worked out very well for him. That may be a very cynical way to look at it, but that’s a fact. A lot of the stuff he’s doing internationally is aided by his level of access.”

The Obama administration wanted Hillary Clinton to use official government email. She didn’t. The Obama administration also demanded that the Clinton Foundation disclose all its donors while she served as Secretary of State. It didn’t comply with that request, either.

The Clintons’ charitable initiatives were a kind of quasi-government run by themselves, which was staffed by their own loyalists and made up the rules as it went along. Their experience running the actual government, with its formal accountability and disclosure, went reasonably well. Their experience running their own privatized mini-state has been a fiasco.

That the Clintons, Bill in particular, are shameless by even the standards of American politics is a large part of my dislike of them. They’ve always skirted the edges of legality and propriety in their dealings, with the one not currently in office cashing in on the connections provided by the other’s power but without quite crossing the line into provable illegality. They’ve always acted as if the rules that apply to the rest of us don’t apply to them.  That makes them polarizing but certainly hasn’t stopped them from being inordinately successful.

They’ve been quite fortunate, indeed, that their political foes have constantly over-reacted to non-scandals such as “Travelgate,” engaged in bizarre conspiracy theories about murders and rapes, and gone overboard on even legitimate scandals like the Lewinski affair and surrounding perjury. Because of that, almost any new incident–including real issues like the e-mail story–are received with a “here we go again” skepticism.

I continue to think that it will be a bigger problem for Hillary’s candidacy than it was for Bill’s simply because she’s rather low on the charm scale by presidential aspirant standards whereas he’s off the charts. But it looks like she’s going to sail to the nomination unopposed, having taken so big a lead on the field that nobody of significance is going to bother to challenge her. If she’s defeated in the general, it’s extremely unlikely to be because of any financial scandals.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I agree that this won’t have much of an impact on the 2016 election. It will only have legs among those who were never going to vote for Hillary anyway. I don’t particularly like Hillary Clinton. Her foreign policy ideology more closely resembles the Republicans than the Democrats. I will vote for her over any of the passengers in the Republican clown car.

    I continue to think that it will be a bigger problem for Hillary’s candidacy than it was for Bill’s simply because she’s rather low on the charm scale by presidential aspirant standards whereas he’s off the charts.

    How many candidates on the Republican side have more charm than Hillary?
    On a side note, an interesting article at VOX; we don’t vote for the candidate we like but against the candidate we fear the most. The Supreme Court alone makes me more afraid of the Republicans.

  2. de stijl says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    The Supreme Court is #1 on my list too.

    My #2 for Clinton is foreign policy.

    She is definitely not my preferred candidate in this area. But the Republican alternative is bombing the crap out of anyone who looks at us sideways regardless of whether it is in our national interest or not. At least HRC will only bomb folks when our interests will be served by said bombing. Hope, hope, hope! (Crosses fingers like Michael Rappaport in True Romance.)

    Hopefully she’s learned a few hard lessons from Libya and Syria where her initial reaction was proved to be wrong. And her AUMF and Iraq War votes. I think the best way to view her FP choices is that she is haunted by Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide informs her present day choices for good or ill.

    Biden would be a decent VP pick to tame her liberal interventionist proclivities – what else does he have to do but be awesome and tool around in his Viper righting wrongs a la Bruce Banner or Kwai Chang Caine?

    He’s seasoned, tanned, and ready.

    Shaolin Biden, baby!

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    How many candidates on the Republican side have more charm than Hillary?

    Several, quite possibly. But that’s not really the point. Bill managed to be simultaneously oily and irascible, which seem to cancel out for most people. Hillary is similarly if less tainted (so far as I know, she doesn’t have the equivalent of the bimbo eruption issue) but her public demeanor is cold and impatient. That makes it harder to get an “aw shucks” reaction to scandal.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    I love them for the very reasons you dislike them: they’re interesting as characters. They’re so interesting, so detailed, so specific, such a mix of high-mindedness and insularity and paranoia that they cross the line from reality into being fictional characters. Someone like Don DeLillo maybe would create these two. Or maybe Sinclair Lewis.

    Basically, they are very well-written characters. Just look at the nuance of their motivations. Or the unique dynamic between them as a couple. You could win a National Book Award for having invented these two.

    I think the thing that irritates people is this very real sense that despite Bill’s infidelity they remain this very tight couple. They have each other’s back, which is what a couple should do, but they still act beleaguered despite their position in the world, there’s still a sense of “us against the world” and an arrogance and reptilian coldness in their determination to prevail.

    And all of this is either normal or understandable or even admirable – after all, Bill could have spent his time painting clown pictures or whatever the hell George W. is doing, and instead he spends his time raising money for desperately needy people. But there’s a dark alchemy in the relationship that transforms light to darkness for a lot of observers. There’s something that gets people’s backs up.

    I think they are genuinely interested in making the world a better place. I think they are just as genuinely all about themselves. It’s a paradox to some people, but makes sense to me. I never believe in single motives, whether high or low. Everyone lives on the moral gray scale, a blend of light and dark.

  5. DrDaveT says:

    The Clintons are, in a real sense, the country’s first true “power couple,” in the sense that they independently had major careers.

    I think you’re forgetting Eleanor Roosevelt. Or, for that matter, Bob and Elizabeth Dole.

    I have to say, I’m still puzzled that anyone finds the “I’m giving a lot of money to your charity, so you owe me a big favor” mechanism to be plausible. It’s not a bribe if the bribed one doesn’t get anything much, and donations at the margin to an enormous charity that has your name on it is clearly not much. Far more likely that the Clintons get personal satisfaction out of bilking the sleazy for a good cause than that they feel any obligation to protect the interests of donors.

  6. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    her public demeanor is cold and impatient

    That is your impression. Others have a different interpretation of her public face.

    It seems to me that you’re missing the “it seems to me” phrase from your statement here.

    Your assertion is not the truth you think it is.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I think you’re forgetting Eleanor Roosevelt.

    She leveraged the office of First Lady in unprecedented and controversial ways but didn’t have an independent career until after his death.

    Or, for that matter, Bob and Elizabeth Dole.

    That’s a closer comparison but so much milder and, mostly, later. Liddy was Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation and Bush 41’s Labor Secretary before the Clintons hit the national scene but those are pretty minor posts. And Bob was just a Senator, rising to Majority Leader, and a failed veep and POTUS nominee.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl:

    That is your impression. Others have a different interpretation of her public face.

    It’s a pretty widespread impression and one that plagued her even among Democrats during her 2008 run.

  9. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    they’re interesting as characters. They’re so interesting, so detailed, so specific

    I love hearing this perspective. It’s so unexpected.

    I guess we all sometimes view public people as the embodiment of types or tropes, but you think of them as specific characters that have been written, created.

    It’s kind of a menschy, baller move. Everyone is the hero of their own story.

    So-and-so is not just like Medea. She is the smartest person in the room and she knows it. And if there were someone smarter, they would be less savvy – they couldn’t handle the heat of the pressure cooker like her. She wishes she were a little taller. She likes watching extreme parkour videos on YouTube because those people have a freedom of movement and of being like she could never dream of when she was young when women’s lives were very defined. Her daughter married a shmendrick, but they are in love so she shuts her damn piehole. She watches Real Big Swords not because of the fetching and the smelting and the actual sword-making which is kind of boring, but because that Irish guy’s speech has such unexpected cadence and content. Etc.

    I like.

  10. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s a pretty widespread impression and one that plagued her even among Democrats during her 2008 run.

    That would be the Republican view of what they imagined Democrats thought of her.

    I didn’t caucus for her. She was my third choice. After Biden failed to garner enough votes I moved to Obama.

    I will grant you the impression of impatience. She seems to be ambitious much more so than we are used to seeing in American women politicians. Much of that impression is male privilege and received culture tainting our perspective. Ambitious male politicians are a dime a dozen and unremarkable; ambitious women are still viewed as an anomaly.

    I don’t see her as cold. I doubt if you asked a roomful of Democrats, you would see more than a handful of raised hands on that. Self-entitled would get a bigger response.

    Again, you stated as a straight assertion that her demeanor is cold and impatient.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:

    They’re specific and nuanced and people raised on gruel don’t generally like that. We have no emotional reaction to Jeb Bush as a human being because there’s nothing specific about him. Now, Ted Cruz is a much more indelible character and no one can stand him. Rand Paul is specific and he’s got niche appeal at best.

    We’ve been trained as readers/viewers/voters to accept bland sameness in characters. It’s a problem I have in my work because I’m writing for kids who are even less accepting of weirdness. So I start a series and the first reviews are all whining about “stock characters.” And then by the final book they’re raving about characters who are indelible. Sure, but had they been indelible at the start no one would have read the book because people will “attach” to the character that is the closest to the flattering image they have of themselves.

    But they won’t love the character most like themselves, they’ll love the most interesting. People like Kirk, they love Spock; they like Aubrey but love Maturin; they like Frodo but love Gandalf. They think they want generic but they end up caring about specific.

    That’s why I don’t worry about all the pseudo-scandal stories around Hillary. We know Hillary. We don’t want to hang out with her, but we know her.

  12. Dave D says:

    @de stijl: Do you live in Iowa? I have never caucused because I don’t have a declared party. I am still biased to the open primary system on my home state Wisconsin, but was considering declaring so I could participate. Is it worth it?

  13. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    [Eleanor Roosevelt] leveraged the office of First Lady in unprecedented and controversial ways but didn’t have an independent career until after his death.

    I’m not sure I agree, unless you define “independent career” so narrowly that it would rule out Hillary as well. Eleanor Roosevelt “leveraged the office of First Lady” to publicly disagree with FDR about certain of his policies. She also took an active role in civil affairs, both independently of FDR and on behalf of his administration. Meeting with the “Bonus Army” that marched on Washington was an act of domestic diplomacy that goes far beyond First Lady duties or mere bully pulpit. Similarly for the Arthurdale project.

    As for the Doles, Bob was not “just a senator”, he was Majority Leader. Liddy held White House positions in the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush 1 administrations, held two cabinet posts, was a Senator herself, and was president of the American Red Cross. Her resume is considerably more impressive than Hillary’s at this point. I’ll concede that the Clintons beat the Doles, but I won’t grant your claim that the Doles (or the Roosevelts) were not a “power couple” who “independently had major careers”.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I will vote for her over any of the passengers in the Republican clown car.

    and

    On a side note, an interesting article at VOX; we don’t vote for the candidate we like but against the candidate we fear the most. The Supreme Court alone makes me more afraid of the Republicans.

    Exactly. Dead on.

  15. de stijl says:

    @Dave D:

    I moved to Des Moines in 2002 and like you I was initially put off by the caucus system in Iowa. Besides after living for my whole life in South Mpls and then downtown when I had a bit more scratch, DM seemed, frankly, a bit small. Then I discovered The Royal Mile was a block and a half from my building, and I was a pig in a poke. Hand-pulled Fuller’s on tap? Yes, please!

    When I did the voter registration I picked Independent like you. Not a joiner – don’t label me!, etc.

    One night in December 2003, sixty or seventy Howard Dean workers descended on the bar en masse on what was a fairly quiet weekday evening. All of them were exactly 22 years old, so they all had to get ID’d and were all so earnest and well-scrubbed it hurt to look at them too long. All of them had to account for their expenses so all of them had to use their credit cards. Chief was the only guy behind the bar and I have never seen anyone work so hard – imagine 60 distinct orders coming in a ten minute span. All of which had to be charged to a specific card. Ouch. He rocked it out, though – dude rules.

    I was a Wesley Clark guy at the time, but had zero intention of attending the caucus. It is a weird system from the outside and I had no desire to attend.

    So when the 2008 cycle rolled around, I decided to attend the caucus just to see what the what was. An adventure, more than anything else. You have to change your registration to Democrat (or Republican) to participate. (I believe the Republican caucus rules are slightly different.)

    You go your local precinct site (in my case, an old folks’ home on Center St). You kibbitz for a while. (It’s going to very white and very, very earnest, btw). Reps for the candidates give their spiel. You shuffle over to the corner assigned to the your candidate. Someone counts the people in the various corners. A dude writes the count on a whiteboard. You kibbitz some more. People try to poach and electioneer you.

    If a candidate falls below 15% of the attendees votes, he/she is dropped from the counting. Supporters of the nonviable candidates can move to another corner, or just bolt if they want to.

    There’s another headcount. Here’s where it gets weird – the final headcount is used to determine the proportion of delegates to the county convention that happens like six months later. I didn’t totally get it. It’s complicated, inside baseball stuff.

    It’s two hours of your life. If you do it, go in with a plan or be prepared to get your ear talked off. My plan failed on the first vote – Biden got like 17 out of ~200 votes. But Obama was my #2, so it was easy-peasy after that. (Btw, Obama beat Clinton something like 70% to 30% in the downtown DM precinct.)

    Would I recommend it? Depends. It’s a silly system, but it feels very participatory and “of the neighborhood.” It’s the First In The Nation(tm), but it’s basic purpose is to eliminate the frivolous, unserious candidates rather than to anoint a front runner. It’s a very different thing than the standing in line, taking your ballot to your booth, filling it out, going home, and then watching the returns on the news thing. It’s kind of like the New England town meeting kind of politics.

    It’s two hours of your life and you can bolt anytime you want. Maybe think of it as an adventure. I am loathe to tell other people what to do, but, if I were you, I would do it. You know, just to do it. You can cross it off your to-do list at the very least.

    If Warren were actually running rather her fanbois wanting her to run, I would participate again.

  16. Sherparick says:

    Joe Conason at National Memo does a take down Mr. Chait’s rather lazy indulgence in Clinton memes that dominate Beltway (not just Conservative) media.

    http://www.nationalmemo.com/fashionable-bashing-new-york-columnist-knows-little-but-talks-big/

    There are also reported details in both Chait’s and the New York Times and Amy Davidson’s article in New Yorker that appear to be wrong, at least from Giustra’s role (especially since the the donations and deals were made years before Hilary became Secretary of State.

    http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/12/giustra-clinton-kazakhstan-pf-ii-in_rl_0912croesus_inl.html