Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has begun to attack the Clinton Foundation, the global nonprofit corporation Bill and Hillary Clinton started after Bill left the White House in 2001. Trump characterized the foundation, to which he has donated, as a “business to profit from public office,” and called it a threat to American democracy. Trump and members of his campaign staff have called for the foundation to be shut down.
Trump’s comments strike at Hillary Clinton’s most obvious vulnerability. One of her deepest flaws as a candidate is that the voters do not trust her. The reason for that distrust, by and large, is her long record of lying in public. Most of those lies, since she and Bill left the White House, have been about the Clinton Foundation and how its activities and fundraising overlapped with her duties as secretary of State.
Even Clinton’s hometown scribes at The New York Times have been forced to admit that the foundation’s aggressive fundraising, especially among foreign leaders and governments, will necessarily lead to conflicts of interest should she win the presidency, as now seems likely.
The Damage Is Done
The foundation’s existing problems are well-chronicled and, given the mainstream media’s fixation on and reactions to Trump, surprisingly well-covered. Jim Geraghty summarized the situation last week for National Review: “Foreign governments and individuals give large amounts of cash to an account controlled by a secretary of state and likely future president, an arrangement that smells fishy to the FBI and looks corrupt to everyone not within the Clintons’ orbit, but the Department of Justice tells everyone not to worry.” The corruption, even if it ended today, would continue to stain the Clintons’ already tattered public reputation.
Bill and Hillary have said recently that they would resign from their leadership roles in the foundation if they return to the executive mansion next year. But the continuation of the foundation, controlled by friends of Bill and Hill, possibly even led by their daughter, Chelsea, would still represent an obvious conflict of interest.
Trump has often been criticized for saying that, if elected, he would transfer his business holdings to a “blind trust” run by his children—something that does not meet the traditional meaning of “blind trust.” Now, Clinton offers to make the same sham transaction, putting her and her husband’s financial non-profit empire into “independent” hands, which are obviously not independent under any normal definition of the word, as several ethicists noted in a Politico article published Thursday morning.
It Could Get Worse
The potential for harm is monumental and unprecedented. All of the money flowing into the foundation, even if those donations are restricted to those by individual American citizens, would create the appearance of corruption, if not corruption itself. This was the logic the Supreme Court used to justify limits on campaign donations by individuals in the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo.
The theory behind that case, beloved on the Left for its limitation of First Amendment principles, surely applies to the Clintons and their foundation. The money may not go directly into the pockets of Hillary’s pantsuits, but in donating to a corporation founded by the Clintons, named after the Clintons, and staffed by the Clintons’ longtime friends, every donor knows he is effectively doing the same thing. For the purpose of political influence, the Clintons and their foundation are one and the same.
Less discussed is the problem of the money flowing out of the corporation. Usually, we worry about politicians taking bribes, but politicians who can pay bribes also pose a threat to the balance of power in Washington. This agglomeration of financial and political power was one of the things that made Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi such a stain on the escutcheon of that nation.
By leveraging the fortune accumulated through his vast communications empire, Berlusconi was able to short-circuit many processes that had once limited Italian prime ministers’ power. At first, this was not unpopular—their parliamentary administrations are notoriously unstable—but in time became poisonous to the Italian political process.
The Bloomberg Effect
How might such a thing work? Consider an example closer to home in the administration of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor appears to have been free of the unrest that now plagues his successor, Bill de Blasio. Under closer inspection, however, as this 2013 BuzzFeed article reveals, Bloomberg’s reign was kept quiet by countless donations by the mayor to groups (mostly on the Left) that would normally have opposed his centrist policies.
As Ben Smith writes, “[i]n Mike Bloomberg’s New York, the mayor bribed you, buying the silence or cooperation of individuals, cultural organizations, and social service groups with hundreds in millions of dollars spent on small personal favors — a legal payment here, a medical procedure there — and charitable contributions.” Bloomberg’s wealth obviously helped get him elected. That part, at least, was well-known. But that wealth also—quietly, secretly, and without notice—helped keep him in office without serious opposition.
That that Clintons would use their wealth in the same way is obvious. Hillary has already aroused considerable ire on the Left, and not just among Bernie Sanders diehards. Her and Bill’s triangulation in the 1990s made enemies, even as it kept Bill in office. Their close association with Wall Street has only made the situation worse, from the Left’s point of view. A little money to the right (i.e., the Left) people would make some of the Clinton’s problems go away.
Bribes work as well on the Right as on the Left, and some of the folks Hillary once characterized as a “vast right-wing conspiracy” might well mute their opposition, too, for the right price. For examples of such flexible morals, we need look no farther than the prominent members of the Republican Party establishment, who bent the knee to Trump after months of seemingly principled opposition. If Reince Priebus and his cohort can twist one way to save their jobs, they will surely turn the other way when the winds—and the cash—blows them there. For every Never-Trump mugwump, Washington holds a dozen Vicars of Bray.
The Clinton Foundation would represent a source of power to the Clintons unlike those enjoyed by any previous American president. Such a source of power, available to one who would already be, by virtue of her office, the most powerful person in the world, creates a situation heretofore unknown in this republic.
Bill’s personal improprieties in his term damaged the office of the presidency, and the appearance of corruption from the donations to the Clinton Foundation will damage it again. To keep that reputation and the reputation of the entire country from being further degraded, the Clintons must dissolve their corporation as soon as possible if Hillary wins election.