Why did Bill Clinton seek US OK for a North Korea speech?

The former president also was offered $650,000 to give a speech in Brazzaville, Congo, according to ABC News.

Andy King/AP/File
Former President Bill Clinton addresses the audience at the Starkey Hearing Foundation So The World May Hear Awards Gala in St. Paul, Minn., in July. The former president sought State Department approval for invitations to speak by North Korea and the Congo, ABC News reported.

In 2012, former President Clinton asked the State Department if it would be OK for him to accept speech invitations related to two of the cruelest nations in the world: the Democratic Republic of the Congo and North Korea.

That’s what ABC News is reporting today, in any case. They’ve obtained copies of e-mails from Clinton’s speaking agency to State that discuss the offers. 

North Korea? Really? What was Mr. Clinton thinking? He’s a smart guy – he must have known these requests might prove, uh, controversial.

“Is Bill Clinton out of his mind? Doesn’t he have ENOUGH money? NORTH KOREA??” tweeted Greta Van Susteren of right-leaning Fox News.

In Clinton’s defense, these speeches weren’t given. The State Department turned the requests down flat.

The Congo-related request would have paid $650,000. But it included a poison pill: Clinton would have been required to appear in photos with the dictators of both the Congo, where the event was to be held, and of the neighboring Democratic Republican of the Congo. The latter's leader, Joseph Kabila, has a particularly grim human rights record, as noted on the Clinton e-mail.

Clinton said he would channel the fee to the Clinton Foundation. State still nixed it.

The ABC report has less detail about the North Korea request. It does appear to have been channeled through Hillary Clinton’s businessman brother, Tony Rodham. Still, the (obvious) answer was “no.” 

A Clinton spokesman told ABC that the former president wasn’t pushing for these speeches to be approved. His speech agency recommended against accepting the offers, but passed them along anyway, according to the e-mails. Clinton aides just forwarded them to the US government to get their opinion.

“As a matter of course, all [speech] requests were run by the State Department,” said Clinton spokesman Angel Urena.

What’s at work here? First, it’s possible this is indeed the result of office-work run amok. Maybe Clinton’s aides just routinely forwarded stuff to Foggy Bottom, without thinking about political consequences. Their jobs were to vet opportunities, not protect Hillary Clinton’s future political prospects.

Second, it’s also possible Bill Clinton was just walking close to the edge of politically-permissible activities. He’s given lots of speeches since he left the Oval Office, raising lots of money for his foundation and his own pocket.

This has been well documented. Between 2001 and 2013, Clinton delivered 542 speeches, according to a Washington Post analysis. He earned $105 million. Of this money, more than half came from foreign speeches, many delivered in China, Japan, Canada, and Britain.

His single biggest payday was in 2011, when he received $750,000 for one day’s talk in Hong Kong.

The Congo fee would have been pretty close to that, you’ll notice.

Third, unflattering stories such as this are going to drip out for months to come, right up until Election Day if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. The ABC report came from e-mails uncovered by the conservative group Citizens United. (Yes, that Citizens United – the one in the Supreme Court case that opened the money taps for campaign finance.)

Citizens United received them pursuant to a request for public records. That’s called opposition research – and it’s an industry today, on both right and left.

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