WASHINGTON – Assuming there is no direct quid pro quo in the thicket of Clinton Foundation donations and State Department decisions – an assumption that may make an abettor out of you and me – what compels the Clintons to operate so close to the ethical line when public scrutiny is so likely?
Any competent political adviser or ethics lawyer would have placed the Rosatom uranium power play in the outbox labeled “stinks to high heaven.” Hillary Clinton had been warned during her confirmation hearing that the appearance of impropriety would be magnified by the Clinton Foundation’s thirst for funding. “Every new foreign donation that is accepted by the foundation,” said then-Sen. Richard Lugar, “comes with the risk it will be connected in the global media to a proximate State Department policy or decision.” The alarm was rung before the fire was set.
It is possible, of course, that Clinton had no intention of running for president at that point. Had she remained a private citizen, these would have been the lower-stakes concerns of a presidential foundation.
But even if Clinton had not yet decided on a presidential run, it was always a serious prospect. Everyone around her knew that foundation matters might eventually fall under microscopic examination. But a bear was allowed into the room.
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The best explanation I’ve heard, by people who have watched the Clintons closely for decades, is that they share an invincible conviction about the goodness of their own motives. Having spent a lifetime serving the country and the world’s poor, they believe they have earned the right to be trusted. The perception of a conflict of interest doesn’t really matter, because their good works speak for themselves. And the Clinton Foundation has done some very good work, particularly in negotiating lower prices for the drugs that treat HIV/AIDS.
This was Hillary Clinton’s main argument justifying the destruction of tens of thousands of emails from the account she used as secretary of state: She was selflessly serving the country, so Americans should trust and count on her judgment. But, at some point, a blind spot becomes a delusion. While Clinton was secretary of state, her husband was collecting millions in undisclosed donations from foreign-controlled mining interests with business before the State Department. The former president was hobnobbing with Russian investment bankers, Canadian mining executives and a Central Asian dictator while the Russian atomic energy agency gained control of a good portion of the American uranium supply. And Secretary Clinton has dismissed the entire matter as beneath her pay grade.
The Clintons, no doubt, are confident of their own virtue in this matter. No quid pro quo has been demonstrated. I am equally confident that donors thought they were gaining access and a vague sort of influence during a high-stakes, politically sensitive business takeover.
Once again, there is probably not enough here to derail the Clinton presidential freight train. But the timing and content of this controversy are damaging. Democrats are beginning to recognize that the first few weeks of the Clinton candidacy have been a disaster, opening up several lines of Republican attack. Though she may now take a van across Iowa, she and her husband have long ridden a magic carpet of private jets and first-class cabins between New York, Geneva and Dubai. The royalty of a globalized elite now run as champions of “everyday people.”
The Clinton team’s immediate and instinctual response – ad hominem attacks on Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” from whence the current scandal sprung – is not working as well as usual. Schweizer’s initial research has been followed by a cascade of reporting from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and others. Common Cause, not credibly part of a right-wing conspiracy, has called for an independent audit. The Clinton Foundation has already been forced to refile five years of tax returns that did not fully disclose foreign grant money.
Addressing the current round of accusations, Clinton has said: “I know that that comes, unfortunately, with the territory.” Democrats are also finding it comes, unfortunately, with the candidate.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.