I kept reading those Clinton Foundation email stories last week trying to figure out why I was even reading them. Take the name “Clinton” out of the equation and consider the known facts:
An official of a nonprofit foundation emailed a staffer he knew in the State Department. He had a donor who said he had useful information and wanted a meeting. The State Department employee wrote back and said sure, I’ll set him up. And then, by all accounts, did… nothing. No meeting ever happened. The department aide (Huma Abedin, in this case) told the foundation official (Doug Band) that she’d set up a meeting between the part-Lebanese donor and Jeffrey Feltman, the former ambassador to Lebanon. But Feltman told The Washington Post last week that not only did he never meet the man, but “no one ever told me he was seeking me out.”
If you don’t think this kind of email exchange happens dozens of times a day in Washington, you are either, perhaps paradoxically, deeply conspiratorial or deeply naïve. Rich people ask connected friends to introduce them to people in government. Sometimes those introductions are made; sometimes they aren’t. Even if the introduction is made, it’s hardly an a priori scandal.
But of course you can’t take the name “Clinton” out of the equation, and so any reading matter that puts the words “Clinton Foundation” and “emails” in proximity to each other, and for that matter the names of Band and Abedin, is bound to generate the expected Pavlovian response. This is not going to change. And so I say again, as I have more than once over the past year, that the Clintons really should take forceful steps to address the legitimate and fair questions out there about the foundation.
Trump keeps having these atrocious weeks because he keeps doing atrocious things because he is an atrocious human being. Just yesterday, Politico said that the pollsters are saying that Trump is “approaching zero hour” now because the candidate who led in the polls coming out of the conventions has won the last 16 elections, all the way back to 1952. And it seems highly unlikely to me that Trump will get—it makes me laugh every time I hear this one—“on message.” He is on message! Racist demagoguery is his message.
But: The election is 84 days away. That’s a long time, and a lot can and will happen. And Clinton has had about as good a last month as a presidential candidate can possibly have—garbage Republican convention, nicely orchestrated Democratic convention, Republicans defecting, her opponent serially demonstrating his brain-melting unsuitability for the job. But it’s not in the nature of presidential campaigns for things to go on like that forever. Someday, the worm will turn.
It is in this context that I keep asking myself: What are the circumstances, as things stand now, with Hillary near 90 percent in Nate Silver’s daily calculation, under which Trump could win? Let’s examine the possibilities:
• A terrorist attack. This is the old standby, right? An attack always helps the Republican but would help Trump especially because he will do and say anything to incite paranoia. But I don’t think this is so. I think Trump has revealed himself to be so erratic and unstable that a majority of voters would rather put a besieged nation in Clinton’s hands (provided she were to handle the situation well).
• An economic collapse. Another piece of long-held conventional wisdom—that a “negative economic event” close to election time hurts the incumbent party. Probably true. But again, Trump having demonstrated that he knows very little about the economy and doesn’t care to learn, I’m not sure it would hold. It would have to be an epic collapse, which could happen but which most economists I consult don’t see occurring.
• A domestic racial conflagration. A Milwaukee-to-the-power-of-five within two weeks of the election. That might more likely help Trump because while the views of white and black Americans on questions of terrorism and the economy aren’t so different from each other, they diverge widely on matters of race. This reality could nudge more centrist white voters in Trump’s direction, although he’d almost surely overplay his hand.
• Finally, a Clinton scandal or “scandal.” This strikes me as the most plausible of all potential scenarios to give Trump some lift-off. In fact let’s put it more bluntly: The emergence of a Clinton scandal/“scandal” is probably the only thing at this point that can keep her out of the White House.
If that’s the case, then it must be asked: Why will the candidate not inoculate herself against such a development? She can’t answer every question about what the foundation has done in the past, and those stories, about Abedin being paid by the foundation while working at State or about Band and Teneo, will continue to percolate up.
But what she—and Bill—can do is say pre-emptively, “Here are the rules under which the foundation will operate” if she’s elected. The rules should be about everything from fund-raising to operations to transparency to Bill’s speaking fees (not a foundation matter per se but a topic of legitimate public concern). They should be clear and simple and pass your average person’s common-sense test.
I wrote more than a year ago in The New York Review of Books: “Imagine speculation that a White House decision with regard to Russia or Pakistan was influenced by a donation to the foundation from someone pursuing a business deal in one of those countries. Even if wholly unfounded, in today’s media environment, the mere speculation could alter outcomes.”
Note my concern is not that such a situation could be bad for Clinton politically. It is that it could alter outcomes. That’s potentially very serious. Even Clinton supporters—I’d say especially Clinton supporters; the people putting their faith in her—deserve to know how she plans to handle this. The sooner the better.