We haven’t had a good scandal since Watergate. Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was juicy, and got him impeached, but he was impeached for something quite simple – lying about a simple sexual matter – and he wasn’t convicted, and his approval ratings soared, and the Republicans looked like smug prigs with a kind of creepy obsession with every single detail of the sex lives of others, not them, and then they lost House seats in the midterm election that followed it all.
That was a bust, and before that it was Iran-Contra. The Reagan administration secretly sold arms to the bad guys, our enemy Iran, and used the money to fund guerilla fighters in Central America trying to overthrow freely-elected governments there that were a bit too left-wing, as the Reagan folks saw it – but Congress had forbidden that. Funding those folks was illegal. Oops. But that was contained. Reagan went on national television and said he was sorry – the whole thing did happen, and was his responsibility, but he hadn’t had any idea what was going on. He hadn’t realized what was happening. In short, he was old and confused – and it wouldn’t happen again.
That worked. Everyone knew he was old and confused. They forgave him, and the man at the center of all the clever secret deals, Oliver North, after a slap on the wrist for lying to Congress, ended up as a regular on Fox News, where he is to this day. The reservoir of good will toward Ronald Reagan will never run dry. Everyone forgot about it. And we were fighting communism, right?
Watergate was another matter. That started with a simple and rather dumb break-in to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and maybe grab some papers, but it kept growing. The more the Washington Post and New York Times looked into it, the more they found, and everything led to President Nixon – and then he did everything he could to cover that up. He refused to turn over evidence, those tapes, and the Supreme Court said he had too – unanimously. He told the attorney general to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor Congress had named, and the attorney general resigned rather than do that. So did the assistant attorney general. The third in line, Robert Bork, did the job, but then it was too late. That simple and rather dumb break-in had generated a massive mess. This was a scandal where the more you looked the more there was to see. It simply got bigger and bigger. It got out of control. Nixon resigned.
Now that was a proper scandal, and Crazy Uncle Rudy thinks we have another one:
Speaking at a campaign rally for Donald Trump in Tampa, Florida, Giuliani said, “I am more than willing to predict, when the history of our day is written, the scandal you are watching unfold is going to be like the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s and maybe bigger. It’s going to be bigger than Watergate.”
Giuliani then goes on for quite a bit about how the Clinton Foundation was an entirely fake charity, even if it did do some good work all over the world, maybe, set up only to make the Clintons rich, by selling access and favors to donors who wanted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to change US policy for them, which we will find out, sooner or later, she did – because this will grow. The newly recovered emails will reveal everything.
Giuliani is an excitable fellow, but Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan of the Associated Press had released the results of a review of State Department appointment data that they used to start to make that claim. Giuliani, like everyone else, had pounced on that, but Matthew Yglesias is now arguing that the Associated Press piece is a bit of a mess:
According to their reporting, Clinton spent a remarkably large share of her time as America’s chief diplomat talking to people who had donated money to the Clinton Foundation. She went out of her way to help these Clinton Foundation donors, and her decision to do so raises important concerns about the ethics of her conduct as secretary and potentially as president. It’s a striking piece of reporting that made immediate waves…
Except it turns out not to be true. The nut-fact that the AP uses to lead its coverage is wrong, and Braun and Sullivan’s reporting reveals absolutely no unethical conduct. In fact, they found so little unethical conduct that an enormous amount of space is taken up by a detailed recounting of the time Clinton tried to help a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s also the recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yglesias is not impressed:
Here’s the bottom line: Serving as secretary of state while your husband raises millions of dollars for a charitable foundation that is also a vehicle for your family’s political ambitions really does create a lot of space for potential conflicts of interest. Journalists have, rightly, scrutinized the situation closely. And however many times they take a run at it, they don’t come up with anything more scandalous than the revelation that maybe billionaire philanthropists have an easier time getting the State Department to look into their visa problems than an ordinary person would.
But there’s a reason this happened:
More than a year ago, Jon Allen wrote for Vox about the special Clinton Rules that have governed much reporting on Bill and Hillary Clinton over the past 25 years. On the list are the notions that even the most ridiculous charges are worthy of massive investigation, that the Clintons’ bad faith will always be presumed, and that actions that would normally be deemed banal are newsworthy simply because the Clintons are involved.
So that’s where we are with this. Reviewing schedules from part of Clinton’s four-year term, the AP calculated that, excluding more than 1,700 meetings with US and foreign government officials, 85 out of 154 meetings with people outside of government were with donors who gave the foundation a total of 156 million dollars – the AP tweeted that out to promote their story – but Yglesias pushes back:
The basic allegation here, that the majority of the people Clinton met with as secretary of state were Clinton Foundation donors, is remarkable. And the implication that the investigation that unearthed this striking fact has also revealed “ethics challenges” is important. The many Americans who already have a negative view of Clinton will see these facts ricocheting through their feeds and appearing on Fox chyrons and will further entrench their negative views.
Only a relatively small handful of people will actually read the story from beginning to end and see that there’s no “there” there.
If you read that and thought to yourself that it seems wrong for the secretary of state to be spending so much time in meetings with Clinton Foundation donors rather than talking to US government officials and representatives of foreign countries, then you are in luck. To generate the 154 figure, the AP excluded from the denominator all employees of any government, whether US or foreign. Then when designing social media collateral, it just left out that part, because the truth is less striking and shareable.
Even so, the number 154 is preposterously low, as Clinton would routinely meet dozens of civil society leaders, journalists, and others on any one of her many foreign trips as secretary of state. In the campaign’s official response to the AP, they argue that the data is “cherry picked” from a “limited subset” of her schedule.
But regardless of that, the AP’s social media claims are simply false – ignoring well over 1,000 official meetings with foreign leaders and an unknown number of meetings with domestic US officials.
That may be nitpicking, but Yglesias sees nothing inappropriate about the meetings:
As the AP puts it “The frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton.”
With that lead-in, one is naturally primed to read some scandalous material – a case of someone with a legitimately crucial need to sit down with the secretary of state whose meeting is held up until he can produce cash, or a person with no business getting face time with the secretary nevertheless receiving privileged access in exchange for money. Instead, the most extensively discussed case the AP could come up with is this:
“Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering low-interest ‘microcredit’ for poor business owners, met with Clinton three times and talked with her by phone during a period when Bangladeshi government authorities investigated his oversight of a nonprofit bank and ultimately pressured him to resign from the bank’s board. Throughout the process, he pleaded for help in messages routed to Clinton, and she ordered aides to find ways to assist him.”
I have no particular knowledge of Yunus, Grameen Bank, or the general prospects of microcredit as a philanthropic venture. I can tell you however that Yunus not only won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize but has also been honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008 he was No. 2 on Foreign Policy’s list of the “top 100 global thinkers,” and Ted Turner put him on the board of the UN Foundation. He’s received the World Food Prize, the International Simon Bolivar Prize, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord.
In other words, he’s a renowned and beloved figure throughout the West, not some moneybags getting help from the State Department in exchange for cash. On the level of pure politics, of course, this is exactly the problem with the Clinton Foundation. Its existence turns the banal into a potential conflict of interest, and shutting it down is the right call. But the fact remains that this is a fantastically banal anecdote.
And there’s this:
“In December that same year, Schwarzman’s wife, Christine, sat at Clinton’s table during the Kennedy Center Honors. Clinton also introduced Schwarzman, then chairman of the Kennedy Center, before he spoke.”
Of course the secretary of state introduced the chair of the Kennedy Center when she attended the Kennedy Center Honors. More substantively, Braun and Sullivan also note that “the State Department was working on a visa issue at Schwarzman’s request.” One could imagine a scandal here, but the AP doesn’t produce one – was a visa wrongly issued? Or was the State Department simply doing its job and fixing a problem?
The State Department doing its job seems to clearly be the story of the time “Clinton also met in June 2011 with Nancy Mahon of the MAC AIDS, the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder.” Was the meeting about Mahon trying to swing a plumb internship for a family member? Nope! As the story concedes, “the meeting occurred before an announcement about a State Department partnership to raise money to finance AIDS education and prevention.”
Meeting with the head of a charity as part of an effort to raise charitable money is just the system working properly.
Read the meat of the article, and the most shocking revelation is what’s not in it – a genuinely interesting example of influence peddling.
The State Department is a big operation. So is the Clinton Foundation. The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center.
Yglesias sees bad reporting here:
Publication bias is the name of a well-known but hard to solve problem in academic research. A paper with a striking new finding is much more likely to be accepted at a top journal than a paper that says, “I investigated an interesting hypothesis, but it turned out to be wrong.” This means that spurious findings – statistical coincidences and such – make it into the published literature, while boring null results don’t. This gives a distorted picture of reality simply because everyone is trying to be interesting.
Similarly, the AP’s basic reporting project here seems like it was worth a shot and probably also fairly time-consuming. But it did not come up with anything. Clinton tried to help a Nobel Prize winner. She went to the Kennedy Center Honors. She had a meeting with the head of the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics about a State Department charitable initiative.
There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.
Rudy will be disappointed. Proper scandals, like Watergate, are supposed to grow the more you look into them. Here, the more you look, the less there is:
Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.
And there was push-back:
Hillary Clinton defended her family’s charitable foundation on Wednesday against criticism from Donald Trump, saying it had provided more transparency than her Republican rival’s sprawling business interests.
Clinton called into CNN’s “AC360” to address Trump’s suggestions that the foundation started by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had been used to facilitate a pay-for-play scheme during her time at the State Department.
“What Trump has said is ridiculous. My work as secretary of state was not influenced by any outside forces. I made policies based on what I thought was right,” Clinton said. She said the foundation had provided “life-saving work,” adding that neither she nor her husband had ever drawn a salary from the charity.
“You know more about the foundation than you know about anything concerning Donald Trump’s wealth, his business, his tax returns,” Clinton said.
That may be true, but there is a new stench in the air, but there is also a way to deal with that:
With 75 days until Election Day and new emails once again casting a pall over her campaign, Hillary Clinton aims to “run out the clock,” confidants say, on the latest chapters of the overlapping controversies that have dogged her campaign since the start.
According to allies and operatives close to the campaign, Clinton’s team thinks “they can ride out” any negative reaction to a set of new emails that show Clinton Foundation officials trying to set up State Department meetings for donors during her tenure as the nation’s top diplomat.
“That doesn’t mean no response,” one Clinton team insider said, “but a muted one rather than a five-alarm fire.”
It’s a strategy borne, in part, of a belief held deeply by Clinton herself that the email controversy is a fake scandal and that voters are as sick of it as the candidate herself – and by the profound weaknesses of Clinton’s opponent.
That is a bet that the more people look into this, and find less and less, the more they shrug and move on, and the more they will be increasingly repelled by Giuliani and Trump shouting, very loudly, that this is the worst scandal ever – with the secondary bet that Trump will go off-script and perhaps sneer at Ted Cruz again, or his wife or his father, or defend Trump Airlines as a great success. The secondary bet is a good one.
Kevin Drum puts that this way:
I’ve been genuinely confused about the whole Foundationgate thing. Did big donors to the Clinton Foundation get extra special access to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State? By all the evidence, no. They may have tried to get access, but for the most part they didn’t. So far I haven’t seen any emails that even remotely suggest otherwise. If anything, Hillary seems to have been unusually careful to avoid entanglements with the Foundation.
So what’s the problem?
Who knows? But he cites Rick Hasen with this:
Revelations from the latest batch of State Department emails released through actions of the group Judicial Watch show that the largest donors to the Clinton Foundation had easy access to Clinton’s inner circle. S. Daniel Abraham, for example, the billionaire behind the Slim Fast diet and a Clinton fundraising bundler, got eight meetings with Clinton while she was secretary of State to discuss Middle East issues he cared about. An AP analysis found that at least 85 people who met with Clinton at the State Department were donors or connected to donors.
None of these things – Trump courting super PAC donors, Clinton getting paid by the wealthiest companies as a private citizen, or Clinton as secretary of State giving access to big donors to her foundation – amounts to criminal activity or even what we might term corruption. In the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, declared that “ingratiation and access are not corruption.”
But there’s still something wrong with a political system in which access goes to the highest bidder. The Clinton team is quick to argue that there’s no evidence the meetings Clinton gave to big donors led to any official actions. But those donors get more than just a picture with a candidate; they get a chance to make their pitch for the policies they want pursued or blocked, a pitch the rest of us don’t get to make because we don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to contribute to campaigns.
This is fine. If the beef with Hillary is that she’s an ordinary politician who’s more likely to see you if you’re (a) important, (b) a party wheelhorse, and (c) an important donor, then I have no argument. I also have no argument that this is unseemly.
But it’s also something I can’t get too upset about. It’s not just that everyone does this. It’s not just that everyone in American politics does this. It’s the fact that everyone, everywhere, throughout all of human history has done this. It’s just the way that human societies work. I’m all in favor of trying to reduce the influence of money on politics, but I doubt there’s any way to truly make much of a dent in it. And as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t consider it one of our nation’s biggest problems anyway.
Even so, he offers several possible takes on Hillary Clinton and this mess:
Powerful people all run in the same circles. They all know each other. They all ask favors from one another. Hillary is part of this circle.
People who are big party donors and big policy influencers have more access to politicians than, say, you or me. On this score, Hillary is a garden variety politician.
Donating to the Clinton Foundation was a well-known requirement for getting a meeting with Hillary.
I’ve simply seen no evidence of the third, and that includes the AP’s strained effort yesterday. Besides, if this were truly well known, by now someone would have come forward to spill the beans.
They didn’t and they haven’t and can’t. That means that there’s no need for anyone to shout:
If you want to criticize the role of money in politics, that’s fine. If you want to criticize the outsize influence of the connected and powerful, that’s fine. If you want to criticize Hillary Clinton for being an ordinary part of this system – as Bernie Sanders did – that’s fine. But is there some kind of special scandal associated with Hillary in the State Department? I sure don’t see it.
That’s odd. Rudy sees it. But then Rudy sees lots of things that just aren’t there – and he thinks we should too. It’s just that that’s difficult. We haven’t had a proper scandal since Watergate. It seems we’ll have to wait a bit longer. This one isn’t it.