If Hillary Clinton is elected president, should she and husband Bill shut down the Clinton Foundation?
That’s a lively topic of conversation in Washington today in the wake of the release of emails revealing the extent to which Clinton friends and foundation donors sought access and favors from Mrs. Clinton when she served as secretary of State.
Clinton defenders say that considering the good the foundation does it would be wrong – even immoral, some claim – to close it because of the behavior of a few benefactors.
“The bad would be, you’d be out hundreds of millions of dollars that are doing good,” said veteran Clinton backer James Carville on MSNBC Tuesday morning.
As yet there’s no evidence any donor actually received anything they would not have been gotten otherwise, they point out. At most they got a meeting or phone call. Many didn’t even get that.
But Donald Trump called the foundation a “corrupt enterprise” that should be shuttered immediately. And even some commentators and media outlets normally supportive of Clinton have agreed that closing down the foundation in fact might be the right thing to do.
The inherently transactional nature of political giving is the main obstacle to the foundation’s further operation, in this view. Donors, or at least some of them, will always push for something, however often President Hillary Clinton says she won’t give them special treatment. Suspicion and controversy will follow as night follows day.
“The foundation should remove a political – and actual – distraction and stop accepting funding. If Clinton is elected, the foundation should be shut down,” editorialized the Boston Globe on Aug. 16.
But can foundation activities be transferred, instead of ended? The Globe and many other critics of the current setup believe that they can, with some programs transferred to other charities, and some established as stand-alone efforts.
Not all experts are sure about that. In the early 2000s, according to Colby College political scientist and Africa expert Laura Seay, the Clinton Foundation expanded HIV treatment programs in central Africa, including at least one country – the Democratic Republic of the Congo – that other charities considered too fragile and dangerous at the time.
“Saying ‘shut it down’ about the Clinton Foundation is only possible from a position of privilege & ignorance about what they do,” tweeted Professor Seay on Monday.
At the least, the release of the emails involving foundation business, disclosed as part of a lawsuit by the conservative group Judicial Watch, offers a fascinating look into the way high-level politics and business interact.
For instance, in 2009 a West Coast sports executive named Casey Wasserman asked a Clinton Foundation official for help in getting a visa for a British soccer star who had been denied entry to the US due to a criminal record. Mr. Wasserman’s charitable foundation had previously given the Clinton Foundation between $5 million and $10 million.
A Clinton Foundation official named Doug Band contacted Clinton aide Huma Abedin at the State Department, and asked for help on the matter.
“Makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask,” Ms. Abedin wrote in reply.
“Then don’t,” Mr. Band emailed back.
There is no record in the released material of whether Abedin in fact took action. This week a spokesman for Wasserman said the visa in question was never granted.
Similarly, U2 frontman Bono, another Clinton Foundation supporter, was unsuccessful in his attempt to get Secretary of State Clinton’s help in setting up a live broadcast link to the International Space Station for concerts.
Asked by Band how this might be done, Abedin replied “no clue,” according to the released emails.
A request from the crown prince of Bahrain for a meeting with Clinton, funneled through the foundation and Band, was granted. “Good friend of ours,” wrote Band in forwarding the query to Abedin.
“If u see him, let him know [the meeting is on],” Abedin wrote Bank. “We have reached out thru official channels.”
The US has full diplomatic relations with Bahrain and a meeting between the Secretary of State and a member of its royal family would not be unusual.
Last week, Bill Clinton told Clinton Foundation employees that the organization would no longer accept foreign or corporate donations if Hillary Clinton wins in November. The question is whether that action would be enough to quiet critics, given that such entities have given large sums in the past. Saudi Arabia alone has given between $10 million and $25 million.
“It is very difficult to see how the organization called the Clinton Foundation can continue to exist during a Clinton presidency without that posing all sorts of consequences,” John Wonderlich, interim executive director of the watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation, told the New York Times.