And so you may have noticed that on Sunday, the acting CEO of the Clinton Foundation offered up an explanation as to why the famous $2.35 million from Frank Giustra was unreported: because the Clinton-Giustra Enterprise Partnership to which the money went was a Canadian entity, not an American one; and apparently, under Canadian law, such donors have a legal right to privacy. And finally, they set it up as Canadian so that other Canadians could contribute and receive the usual tax credit.
UPDATE: The $2.35 million in question was not from Giustra. It came from Ian Telfer, a friend of Giustra's. Telfer also made other donations to the foundation of up to $5.6 million that according to The New York Times were reported
Okay, whatever. Sounds quasi-plausible, I guess. But to most of Washington and some unknown percentage of Americans, it’ll just sound complicated and fishy. And whether that skepticism is warranted or not, its existence is pretty obviously a fact that the Clintons will need to deal with, and they ought to deal with it sooner rather than later by announcing some clear, simple, new rules about what the foundation will and will not do if she becomes the president. They can make this issue, or “issue,” go away, if they want to.
I’d like to see Bill and Hill, and I suppose even Chelsea since her name is on the thing too, stand up and give a press conference sometime in May or June where they say the following: Yes, first, let them remind everybody of the great work the foundation has done, the lives saved, the anti-HIV drugs dispensed, the water made potable, all that. All that stuff is real. Let them say they want the foundation to continue doing this important work.
But then let them say words to the effect: “However, we are aware of the appearances here involving some recent revelations. No one has found any smoking gun of a quid pro quo, and we’re confident no one will; but we agree the standard needs to be higher than that. The presidency can’t be compromised by appearances of conflict of interest. So here’s what we’re going to do, starting on X date”—while she’s still a candidate, way before she’s even president.
“We’re gonna downsize. We’re going to raise less, and we’re going to do less. We’re going to put a cap on the size of donations we accept (and that cap should be more like five figures than seven). We’re going to move toward a fundraising model of relying more on smaller donations. We’re going to disclose our donors frequently on our website—not annually, not quarterly, but monthly. Bill and Chelsea are not going to accept exorbitant speaking fees anymore, because we get that to average people working hard to make $60,000 a year, that just looks kinda clammy, and we have enough money. We know that.
“We’re going to limit severely the kind and amount of money we accept from foreign governments and citizens. We’re going to vet our donors more rigorously in terms of who might stand to profit from a decision of the executive branch, and we’re going to turn down the money wherever our officers see the slightest possibility for the appearance of a conflict. And whenever an agency of the executive branch, or one of those complicated interagency bodies like the one involved in the recent brouhaha, makes a determination in an area where the foundation is doing work, we’ll proactively disclose that, too.”
Is there more? There’s surely more. But you get the picture: The idea here is to put questions about the foundation to rest.
Let’s go quickly through the foundation’s 2013 financials. It took in $199 million in donations and $93 million in grants. Of the various initiatives those moneys fund, the Clinton Health Access Initiative is the biggest, costing $128 million (the price tag of the Clinton-Giustra partnership was just $5 million). I could be wrong here, but I don’t recall seeing any negative stories about the health initiative. Why not just cut back and do only that? Who’s going to argue with HIV/AIDS medications, vaccines (well, some people will argue with vaccines, but that’s another story), building a health-care infrastructure in the developing world?
There’s also something called the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, which is confined to doing similar good deeds in the United States. So fine, keep that. It’s only $1.7 million anyway. A foundation that spends $130 million—or somewhat less, assuming a new cap on the donation size—improving people’s health sounds to me like a perfectly respectable foundation, and I reckon most Americans would think okay, something like that seems just fine.
Some kind of move like this, assuming no quid pro quo is brought to light between now and Election Day, and I think the whole controversy goes away. Most voters care less about what might have happened in the past than what they’re going to do in the future. If these proposed new rules are bold—if even critics have to go on cable TV and grudgingly acknowledge that they sound pretty good on paper—and easy for regular people to understand, the foundation likely ceases to be an issue.
Quietly on April 15, four days before most of the world knew about the Clinton Cash book from that Times story, the foundation did announce three new steps it was taking, not that anyone noticed. It’s going to disclose donors quarterly instead of annually. It’s going to more or less shut down the Clinton Global Initiative, or at least stop with the big glitzy events (after one that’s already scheduled). And as for foreign governments, it will accept money only from Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
It’s a start. But it isn’t enough. And by the way the issue here isn’t pleasing the media. The media will never be pleased with the Clintons. But they do need to think about, you know, voters. Because if these stories, full of innuendo as they may be, continue to pop up, and the Clintons don’t acknowledge some error and pledge to fix it, lots of voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote for her could say “enough already.”
Last point, and it’s key: The responsibility to do something like this falls even harder on her because of the fact that she’s the only Democratic game in town. If there were other plausible candidates, and the foundation story took her down during the primary season and she lost to some other equally viable nominee, that would be one thing. But there isn’t another equally viable nominee. And there’s too much at stake in 2016 for her to risk losing over this. So—don’t.