One can hardly fault Chelsea Clinton for not being eager to get mixed up in her mom’s presidential campaign controversies.
Yet on Thursday morning at the Council on Foreign Relations, that unhappy possibility seemed inevitable.
Since Hillary Clinton formally declared her candidacy only two Sundays ago, it was the first time, but doubtless not the last, that Chelsea was confronted in public by her parents’ PR messes in what promises to be a media maelstrom sucking all three Clintons into the politics of personal deconstruction. (Full disclosure: Chelsea Clinton is on the board of IAC, parent company of The Daily Beast.)
During a forum titled “Women’s Rights as Human Rights: The Path to Full Participation” at the council’s Park Avenue headquarters, ABC News anchor Juju Chang invited the 35-year-old daughter of former and perhaps future presidents to defend their allegedly dodgy fundraising and favor-granting quid pro quos—the subject of a damaging investigative story by the New York Times.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the presidential race that’s underway, and the Clinton Foundation keeps bubbling up,” Chang addressed Chelsea, who happens to be the mother of six-month-old Charlotte (an oft-mentioned applause line in grandma’s campaign appearances) as well as the hands-on vice chairman of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
“A lot of people have questions, for example why did the foundation take money from Saudi Arabia when they didn’t treat women as well as perhaps they could,” Chang went on. “And there’s questions even this morning about money coming from Ukraine.” (Actually not quite, although “Ukraine” is certainly a reasonable conflation of “uranium” and “Kazakhstan”—the focus of the Times story, along with the state department’s cooperation with the Clinton Foundation’s uranium-mining donors in blessing a multi-million-dollar Russian acquisition deal, Bill’s energetic deal-facilitating for said donors and his eye-popping lecture fee in Moscow from participants in said deal.)
Sitting onstage in front of a breakfast crowd, Chelsea looked cool, calm and self-possessed. In the nicest way possible Chang continued: “There is this perception—were favors done in exchange for funding? I wanted to get your thoughts on that.”
Not surprisingly, Chelsea punted—and, again, who can blame her?
“There are a lot of questions in that,” she began, and then launched into a lengthy disquisition that answered none of them.
Instead she stressed the foundation’s laudable charitable activities, while offering a version of reality at odds not only with the Times story but with today’s Reuters report that the Clinton Foundation has been filing erroneous tax returns that failed to disclose donations from foreign governments—a category of largesse it had promised not to take during Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state.
“So what the Clinton Foundation has said is that we will be an even more transparent,” Chelsea asserted, “even though Transparency International, among others, have said we are among the most transparent foundations. We’ll disclose donors on a quarterly basis and not just on an annual basis.”
She went on: “Thinking about my role as vice chair, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people being impacted by that work and our staff on the ground in 36 countries… We will be even more transparent to eliminate any questions while we’re in this time”—presumably, the hairy-scary campaign season.
The same day as her interview, and as controversy bubbled, it was announced Chelsea and her father would embark on a spookily timely African tour to highlight the work of the Clinton Foundation.
Needless to say, I was thwarted in my efforts to ask Chelsea a follow-up question as she left the building after patiently greeting a receiving line of admirers.
In fairness, Chelsea has been the foundation’s vice chairman only since 2013, and before that, as a member of the board, she was largely responsible for professionalizing the non-profit’s fundraising and spending practices, and disciplining the organization chart.
She is—hardly a shock, given her DNA—a skilled and appealing public speaker: dauntingly well-informed, self-deprecating, emotionally invested, and usually pretty nimble when grappling with knotty issues.
After all, Chelsea has been coping with her parents’ public imperfections since that spot of bother back in 1998, when she was just a kid.
“Another person might have gone through the same things and come out extraordinarily bitter,” Clinton loyalist Paul Begala told me for a New York Magazine profile of Chelsea during her mom’s last presidential quest. “Does she strike you as a woman who got bitter or got better?”
Former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, who served during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, recalled the image of Chelsea walking with her parents to Marine 1—for an awkward family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard—on the day her dad publicly admitted having an inappropriate relationship with the White House intern.
“I was sitting on the helicopter watching them all walk toward me,” McCurry said, adding that 18-year-old Chelsea was between them, gripping her parents’ hands. “They all looked miserable except Chelsea. Chelsea looked determined. She was determined not to let these two parents that she loved get away with goofing up the marriage.”
It remains to be seen if she can be anywhere near as effective in stopping them and their entanglements from goofing up the campaign.