Opinion

Clinton Met With Donors — So What?

We need more assurances from Clinton, but meetings are how things get done

There is no evidence to this point that Clinton's policies at the State Department were ever influenced by donors to her family foundation, writes Jonathan Allen. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Slap the handcuffs on. Lock Hillary Clinton up without trial! Maybe, as one Donald Trump ally suggested, just summarily execute her for treason.

What’s the charge? She had … (cover the children’s ears) … meetings! And some of them — fewer than two a month — were with Clinton Foundation donors.

There are private meetings between donors and officeholders? Right here in #ThisTown city? Someone tell members of Congress! They’ll want to act immediately to ban — er, take advantage of — this egregious system of pay for play.

Oh wait, they already do. They all meet with donors. That’s how they get their money. But rather than having meetings with people who also make philanthropic contributions to major international charities, they tend to insist that donors show up at fundraising events so that a campaign check can be handed over person-to-person. Some have even been known to pass each other checks on the House floor or in a little computer closet called the “red room” adjacent to the House floor.

[Trump the Degenerate Gambler]

Trump gave the Clinton Foundation money and then later said that he got Bill and Hillary Clinton’s attendance at his wedding — his third wedding for those keeping track at home — in return. So, his money for a meeting with the Clintons. Does that make him guilty of bribery or them guilty of charging too little to endure that?

If you’re still reading, you probably know all of this is in reference to this week's AP story about a study of Hillary Clinton’s private meetings with nongovernment entities during the four years she was America’s top diplomat. According to the AP, which didn’t release a list with its story, 85 of those meetings were with people who also donated to the Clinton Foundation or are employed by an entity that did so.

It’s inappropriate to fault the AP for reporting something none of us knew and that is worth understanding: People who have donated to the Clinton Foundation aren’t barred from meeting with Hillary Clinton, and it’s likely that it’s easier for a big donor to the foundation, her campaigns or her personal bank account (think Wall Street speeches) to get face time with her.

That’s a far cry from what Donald Trump, liberated from fear of slander statutes because he’s running against a public figure, said about Clinton on the stump Wednesday: “She sold favors and access in exchange for cash.”

[We're Underestimating the Donald Trump Debacle]

If Trump could prove that, he would. And maybe he thought he was buying favors and access for his cash, but no one has shown any evidence to this point that any action was taken in exchange for money or that Clinton’s policy was influenced by any of the people who also donated to the foundation.

Moreover, there are plenty of Clinton Foundation donors with whom any secretary of State would meet, and plenty of Foundation-backing companies whose help Clinton enlisted in diplomatic missions abroad. The question, aside from whether any special favors were done, is whether access was granted, based on a donation, to anyone who shouldn’t have had it. The AP didn’t release a full list, but there are counterexamples in its story — for example, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

What’s most mystifying about all of the attention to this story, though, is it’s not close to the most revealing connection between the Clinton State Department and the Clinton Foundation. In 2009, Hillary Clinton set up an office within the State Department that mirrored the Clinton Global Initiative and raised money for the American pavilion at the world’s fair in Shanghai, as my co-author, Amie Parnes, and I wrote in our book “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.”

That office, boasting a letter of support from Clinton, called Clinton Foundation donors and asked for money. There’s a pretty healthy intersection of companies that donated to both the Clinton Foundation and the Shanghai Expo pavilion, including Pepsi and Yum! Brands. Clinton cared about the pavilion because Chinese officials told her they would frown upon American abstention from the Expo. Her husband inscribed a copy of the Shanghai Expo program for one of her aides with the words “We did it, buddy.”

[Clinton Should Come Clean on Her Relationships With Donors]

But no one accused Hillary Clinton of doing anything in exchange for the contributions, nor is there any evidence of that. She was, however, able to get the U.S. pavilion built at the World’s fair with private money. Her allies would say her network came to life in support of a U.S. foreign policy imperative. Her detractors would say it was just another route through which she could be influenced by donors.

Here’s another ugly stat: Nearly 200 entities that lobbied the State Department during her tenure are also donors to the Clinton Foundation. She’s simply not above the appearance of potential conflicts of interests, and I’ve written before for Roll Call that I think she should tell the American public exactly what she intends to do to prevent donors past and present from influencing her if she’s president. And those steps need to be longer and stronger than the ones she’s taken so far.

But declining to ever shake hands, break bread or even talk policy with anyone who has ever given money to the Clinton Foundation isn’t the answer. Meetings are how things get done — not just bad things, but good things, too.

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.

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