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Weapons, Pipelines & Wall St: Did Clinton Foundation Donations Impact Clinton State Dept. Decisions?

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New questions have arisen this week over Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. On Tuesday, the Associated Press published a new investigation revealing that while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state, more than half of the private citizens she met with had donated to the Clinton Foundation. The AP investigation comes after a three-year battle to gain access to State Department calendars. The analysis shows that at least 85 of 154 people Hillary Clinton had scheduled phone or in-person meetings with were foundation donors. This does not include meetings Clinton held with U.S. or foreign government workers or representatives, only private citizens. We speak to David Sirota of the International Business Times and Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. He was President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1998 to 2001.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: New questions have arisen this week over Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. On Tuesday, the Associated Press published a new investigation revealing that while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state, more than half the private citizens she met with had donated to the Clinton Foundation. The AP investigation comes after a three-year battle to gain access to State Department calendars. The analysis shows that at least 85 of 154 people Hillary Clinton had scheduled phone or in-person meetings with were foundation donors. This does not include meetings Clinton held with U.S. or foreign government workers or representatives, only private citizens. These 85 donors contributed more than $150 million to the foundation combined. Calling into CNN’s AC360 Wednesday, Clinton slammed the investigation.

HILLARY CLINTON: There’s a lot of smoke, and there’s no fire. This AP report, put it in context. It excludes nearly 2,000 meetings I had with world leaders, plus countless other meetings with U.S. government officials when I was secretary of state. It looked at a small portion of my time. And it drew the conclusion and made the suggestion that my meetings with people like the late great Elie Wiesel or Melinda Gates or the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus were somehow due to connections with the foundation instead of their status as highly respected global leaders. That is absurd. These are people I was proud to meet with, who any secretary of state would have been proud to meet with to hear about their work and their insight.

AMY GOODMAN: The AP says it’s been asking for the State Department schedules for three years and that what’s been released thus far covers only half of her four-year tenure.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who himself has donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, has accused Clinton of selling access to the State Department.

DONALD TRUMP: We are going to end government corruption. Hillary Clinton ran the State Department like a failed leader in a Third World country. That’s what it’s run—it’s run like—like a Third World country. She sold favors and access in exchange for cash. She sold it.

AMY GOODMAN: Questions have also arisen over what will happen to the Clinton Foundation if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. According to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, the Clinton Foundation will stop accepting corporate and foreign donations, but an exception may be made for the Clinton Health Access Initiative. The Journal also reports former President Bill Clinton will leave the board, but that Chelsea Clinton plans to stay on it.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. David Sirota is the senior editor for investigations at the International Business Times. His most recent article is titled “Was There 'Pay to Play' at the Clinton Foundation?” We’re also joined by Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. He was President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1998 to 2001.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Paul Glastris, let’s begin with you. What’s your reaction to these revelations of the Associated Press?

PAUL GLASTRIS: Well, you know, I read the story very carefully. I think Secretary Clinton kind of got it right. This was a eyebrow-raising piece of math that said half of the private-sector people she met with in her first two years were Clinton donors. Let’s—basically, there’s two—there’s two issues here. One, did she have special—did people who gave to the foundation have special access? And, two, did the access get them anything? Right? On the special access part, that piece of math that the AP story shows suggests that. That’s why people, I think, are paying attention. But it’s—actually, those 85 people are 1 percent of the Clinton Foundation donors. There are 7,000 Clinton Foundation donors; 85 got access.

And then you look at the individuals highlighted in the story. They’re people like Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and human rights activist. They’re people like Muhammad Yunus, who created the microfinance revolution that has lifted millions of the most destitute people out of poverty. They’re people who are running AIDS campaigns in Africa. So—and for the most part, these are people that have known Hillary Clinton for years, even decades. Muhammad Yunus and Hillary Clinton were doing microfinance in Arkansas in 1985. So, what these people seem to be, at least from the evidence of the story, are part of Hillary Clinton’s longtime network. And they also happen to be people who gave to her foundation. They don’t seem to be people who gave to her foundation in order to get to know Clinton. They’re people who gave to her foundation because they know Clinton. And that’s an important distinction.

AMY GOODMAN: David Sirota?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, my reaction to it is that I think that if you look at some of these individual examples, I think Paul is right that it’s hard to argue that their donations to the foundation got them access. They are—a lot of these people in the AP story are people who knew her.

But I think we should pull back and look at not just what the AP reported, but at the nexus between the donors to the Clinton Foundation—major corporate donors, major foreign government donors—and what business they had with the State Department. Look, the Clinton team, the foundation and the campaign, is saying that this is not going to happen if she is president. The question then becomes: Why was it then allowed to happen when she was secretary of state? The secretary of state has a huge amount of power over a huge number of issues and policies and contracts, for instance, that many of these donors had an interest in. And we did a series on, for instance, arms exports and how many of the governments that gave big to the Clinton Foundation saw huge increases in arms export authorizations from the State Department, and the State Department is the chief regulator of arms exports. There have been stories about foreign governments giving, like Algeria gave $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation at a time when it was lobbying the State Department on human rights issues. You had a situation, that The Wall Street Journal reported, where Hillary Clinton herself intervened in a case dealing with taxes with UBS, a Swiss bank, and then, suddenly, after that, UBS began donating big to the Clinton Foundation. So there are many examples of—I mean, there’s oil companies—that’s another one I should mention right now, which is that oil companies were giving big to the Clinton Foundation while lobbying the State Department—successfully—for the passage of the Alberta Clipper, the tar sands pipeline.

So, again, there are many of these examples where the people and corporations that were lobbying the State Department were giving huge to the Clinton Foundation. Do we know that that money made those deals and those—and access about those deals happen? I don’t think we know. But here’s the key point. The key point is that ethics rules have typically been in place in states and at the federal level that have said we want to prevent the appearance or the potential for conflicts of interest, because we understand that if the appearance or the potential for a conflict of interest is there, we can’t know if those conflicts are operationalized, that there are so many ways for them to be operationalized that we need to prevent the potential and appearance of a conflict of interest or potential appearance of a conflict of interest. And that is really what’s at issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond to that, Paul Glastris?

PAUL GLASTRIS: Well, that was a—that’s a whole lot of examples, and I can’t respond to, you know, each one individually. But I think we have now two big investigations—one by the AP, the other as a result of the conservative Judicial Watch lawsuit that showed various members of the—ex-members of the Clinton Foundation and others trying to get meetings with Secretary Clinton. And in virtually every case, the secretary’s people made the right choice. So, when an ex-Clinton Foundation official wanted a visa granted to a soccer player who had committed a felony, the answer became no. When the crown prince of Bahrain wanted a special meeting with Senator Clinton—Secretary Clinton, they said, you know, “Let’s have it go through official channels,” and she got—he got the meeting, which is, of course, what he should have done. When Muhammad Yunus then asked for help because the government of Bangladesh was sort of destroying his leadership team at the bank that he created, and the entire international community said that that was wrong, she did act. So, in each of the situations where we have these internal records of what she did and who she met with, she did the right thing. And I don’t think there’s a lot of dispute about that. So, we don’t know what happened in these other instances, but we have had this kind of deep forensic now from some very, very—with some very, very good data, and it’s shown a very tight ship and a very ethical set of choices. So, you know, you can always raise these issues, but the facts we have from this reporting pretty strongly shows that there were not favors granted for any of this.

AMY GOODMAN: No favors—

DAVID SIROTA: But can I just—I mean, the—

AMY GOODMAN: David, go ahead.

DAVID SIROTA: The Bahrain example is a very good example. I mean, that is a very—I’m glad you brought it up. The Bahrain example, we saw that the email came in from the Clinton Foundation. The crown prince of Bahrain has given the Clinton Foundation $32 million. And I don’t think anybody is going to sit up and say the crown prince, one of the top leaders in a dictatorial regime, is giving money—we haven’t heard anyone argue that money from dictators typically comes because dictators want to reduce poverty in the world. So, money is coming into the Clinton Foundation from the crown prince of Bahrain. The Clinton Foundation reaches out to the State Department and says, “He is a good friend of ours,” this person from this autocratic regime, head of the military there. The State Department says that the crown prince had already reached out to them and that Hillary Clinton wasn’t sure she wanted to have a meeting with him. And then, subsequently, the meeting happens.

And what happens after, if that—we don’t know if that meeting actually happened, but there was a—the State Department said it was going to happen. Subsequently, after that, what happened is that Bahrain saw a major increase in U.S. arms export authorizations from the Clinton State Department, at a time that Bahrain was facing the Arab Spring uprisings and was accused of human rights violations in crushing those protests. So, did the money and the Clinton Foundation relationship ultimately lead to those arms export deals? We don’t know. Did it potentially get access for that leader at that time? There’s certainly evidence that that could have happened.

And again, the question that this all revolves around is: Why was the potential for a conflict of interest allowed to exist at the State Department, when the Clinton campaign and the Clinton Foundation now says it’s now unacceptable if Hillary Clinton would be president? What is the difference there?

PAUL GLASTRIS: OK, well—well, can I address that particular point?

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Paul Glastris.

PAUL GLASTRIS: So, the rules of Hillary Clinton and the existence of the foundation and what they could and couldn’t do were hashed out by the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton. So the rules she lived under were the Obama administration rules.

Moreover, the decision to sell arms to this or that country, though the State Department is the regulator, the ultimate regulator, these are made in interagency discussions pushed more by the Pentagon and the White House and other parts of the government than anywhere else. So, there’s no indication that Bahrain was—by putting money into the Clinton Foundation, it was influencing the Defense Department, that wanted to sell these weapons. So, you can question whether they should or shouldn’t have. They were right in the middle of orchestrating the Iran thing, and they had restive Sunni nations, so this was all—you know, if you like the Iran deal, you know, you have to balance that out. So—but this is—so, this is a function of what the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative is. And their basic business model is—

DAVID SIROTA: But here’s the question, Paul. I mean, the question becomes—

AMY GOODMAN: David Sirota.

DAVID SIROTA: Why were these leaders—let’s say, of these Middle Eastern dictatorships—why were they giving that money? I mean, these are sophisticated, politically sophisticated donors, them and corporations. They are repeatedly giving money to the Clinton Foundation. And I don’t think you’re arguing, and I haven’t heard anyone argue, that, you know, the Saudi regime or another dictatorial regime is giving money to the Clinton Foundation because they really—in the deep well of their heart, they want to solve poverty or help poor children. They are repeatedly giving money to the Clinton Foundation at a time they are seeking highly controversial—in this instance that we’re talking about, highly controversial arms deals. There was a Saudi deal where the State Department said it was Hillary Clinton’s personal top priority to get one of the biggest Saudi arms deals through. The Israelis were raising concerns about it.

PAUL GLASTRIS: Right.

DAVID SIROTA: It went through. And again, the money flowed into the Clinton—had flowed into the Clinton Foundation. So, why were those donors giving? What did they think they were getting?

PAUL GLASTRIS: OK—

DAVID SIROTA: And again, the critics of this say that what it ended up being was potentially a way that donors saw a way to curry favor with the State Department on controversial issues.

PAUL GLASTRIS: Right. OK, two points. One, the reason the Clinton State Department and the entire Obama administration was willing to give a lot of arms to the Saudis and the Bahrainis was that they were tubing the Saudis and the Bahrainis by trying to open negotiations with Iran. Everybody knows this. It’s not—we don’t need to kind of find some nefarious payoff in order to understand the policy. You can agree with the policy or disagree with the policy, but if you’re in favor of the opening of Iran, it’s hard to say they shouldn’t have sold these arms to the Sunnis. They were trying to keep a balance of power going in order to bring some kind of peace and resolution of these nuclear issues.

Now, on the Clinton Global Initiative, the point I was trying to make is, the whole business model of this thing is: Get rich people and governments to empty their wallets in order to help poor Africans who can’t afford AIDS drugs. Eleven million—that Bahraini money and that Saudi money was spent on things like training midwives in Ethiopia or lower-priced AIDS drugs for 11 million people. So, you know, that was the business model. You could say that’s a terrible business model, they shouldn’t have set it up. Fine, I understand, it looks bad. But that’s what the money went for. And, you know, it certainly leaves open questions as to whether that money bought influence. All I’m saying is, the deepest investigations we’ve had, this AP story and the Judicial Watch story, showed that that’s not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: David Sirota?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, I mean, look, again, I think you’re right to say that the Clinton Foundation has done projects and is involved in efforts that are laudable and philanthropic. But again, the deeper policy question here goes back to whether a potential conflict of interest, whether the appearance of a conflict of interest, should have been permissible at the State Department and what this money potentially bought.

And I want to go to the—one other point about the appearance of a conflict of interest, because I’ve heard a lot of pundits out there defending the Clintons with sort of the same talking points, saying, “Oh, well, there was a—there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest, and there was only a potential, and that’s all that can be proven.” And, of course, if a lot of these same pundits, these Democratic pundits, were looking at a Republican situation, they would be screaming about how this is a huge scandal. But the key on the appearance of a conflict of interest is, if we want people to believe that their government is doing things in the right way in a democracy, that access isn’t being sold, that contracts aren’t being given out on the basis of preference and money going into a private foundation, appearances actually do matter. It is not something to throw—to pooh-pooh. Appearances really matter. The optics are not just some talking point. The optics matter in a democracy, when people—the public is asked to believe that its government is acting on behalf of the public interest. And in this case, all of these questions swirling around—the Clinton people seem to understand that those questions cannot exist when she was president, but why was it allowed to exist when she was in such a powerful position as America’s top diplomat?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about—

DAVID SIROTA: That’s the central question.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about what should happen with the Clinton Foundation, if Hillary Clinton became president. We’re speaking with David Sirota of the International Business Times, who has long covered the Clinton Foundation, and Paul Glastris, who was a President Bill Clinton speechwriter for a number of years and is now the editor of the Washington Monthly. Stay with us.

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