Hillary Clinton has taken too much money from people with business before the government to dismiss concerns about conflicts of interest out of hand.
She’s taken it in smaller sums from direct donors to her campaigns for Senate and president, much larger contributions to the party she now runs, eye-popping personal payments for speeches and astronomical gifts to the Clinton Foundation.
The public deserves to know how she plans to prevent all that money from unduly influencing her if she is elected president.
It can be easy in this campaign season to temporarily lose sight of the ugly optics of her relationships with the wealthy and self-interested because Donald Trump, who is wealthy and self-interested, obscures questions about Clinton by raising the specter of violence against her, saying that she and President Obama co-founded ISIS and offending just about everyone who isn’t an older white, conservative man.
But that doesn’t mean she deserves no scrutiny. Judicial Watch’s recent release of emails showing that aides to her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, talked about arranging a meeting for a donor with a State Department official and trying to find employment for another person are hardly a smoking gun in terms of improper behavior.
Both of those activities are commonplace in American politics, and the Supreme Court recently ruled that putting together a meeting for a donor doesn’t constitute an illegal quid pro quo transaction in and of itself.
But there are legitimate questions about the propriety — if not the legality — of Clinton Foundation donors being tapped to fund the State Department’s pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, about the inversion of Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s employment status at State so she could do work for a consulting firm founded by longtime Bill Clinton consigliere Doug Band, and the money Hillary Clinton made giving speeches to companies that had interests before the State Department and would have interests in her decisions if she wins the presidency.
From the Clintons’ perspective, big problems can only be solved if the public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors are brought together in unconventional ways. And, as the Clintons and their allies are quick to point out, few people in American life have the power to convene movers and shakers the way the Clintons do. Their relationships can be, and have been, used to do tremendous good. But that doesn't mean the Clintons or their operations are beyond reproach.
It’s too late for Hillary Clinton to do the basic things she should have done to protect her candidacy from conflict-of-interest charges: Place an even stronger wall between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation and forgo the paid speaking circuit.
The latter was a big issue in her primary, and Democratic voters decided collectively that it didn’t outweigh the strengths she would bring to their ticket and to the White House. Compared with the deficiencies of Donald Trump, I suspect, general election voters will also see these as damaging but not devastating problems.
Still, voters deserve a better explanation of the symbiotic relationships Clinton has with moneyed interests and why she thinks there’s nothing wrong with taking contributions and personal cash from them. Perhaps there’s a good case to be made — maybe in the vein of playing a convening role — but it’s not being articulated right now.
We know a lot about the agenda Clinton would pursue as president. One of the underplayed aspects of her campaign is the degree to which she has developed a governing plan. It is the most expansive, complex and detailed campaign platform in the history of modern presidential politics. She’s so very transparent about public policy and, disappointingly, equally opaque about her behind-the-scenes politics.
Given her lead in the polls right now, the media is paying more attention to who would benefit — and who would lose ground — in a Clinton presidency. But because she doesn’t spend much time talking to the national press corps, there are few opportunities to suss out how she thinks about the convergence of her goals with the interests of those who contribute to her.
Clinton would do a public service by talking more about how she viewed the State Department’s relationship with Clinton Foundation donors and how she plans to handle interactions between a Clinton administration and the contributors to her various accounts. If we don’t get answers to those questions now, we certainly won’t get them if she’s in the White House.
I don’t expect her to devote a speech or a press conference on these issues — she seems to be doing just fine without addressing them — but she should. Setting out the rules for the road now would help the public judge her intentions, and, if she wins the White House, it would help keep her administration away from genuine conflicts of interest.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.