During her confirmation hearing seven years ago, Hillary Clinton pledged to “do everything in my power” to separate her work as Secretary of State from the business of her husband’s sprawling global charity.
But new emails released this week show that her top aides didn’t always make those distinctions.
An April 2009 exchange between Clinton Foundation executive Doug Band and two of Clinton’s top State Department aides concerning a major foundation donor is the latest in a succession of emails suggesting Clinton staffers violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the ethics agreement Clinton had signed just months earlier.
In the April 2009 exchange, Band seeks urgent access for Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, who donated between $1 million and $5 million to the foundation and pledged another $1 billion to the Clinton Global Initiative.
“As you know, he’s key guy there and to us,” Band writes to Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin. The chain ends with Band urging Abedin, “better if you call him. Now preferable. This is very important.”
There’s no evidence showing what Clinton’s aides did with the request, although Abedin appears eager to help Band, referring him quickly to the Lebanese ambassador. And it’s possible that Chagoury was trying to help the U.S., as one former Obama administration official noted, by alerting the ambassador to a threat in Lebanon. `
Either way, the foundation was seeking special access for a donor — itself a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the pledge Clinton and top foundation officials had signed, according to several ethicists.
“For the duration of my appointment as Secretary if I am confirmed, I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which The William J. Clinton Foundation (or the Clinton Global Initiative) is a party or represents a party, unless I am first authorized to participate,” Clinton wrote in a Jan. 5, 2009, letter to State Department Designated Agency Ethics Official James H. Thessin.
She was the only one to sign that letter, but a December 2008 “memo of understanding” outlining ethics protocols for the foundation was signed by Clinton Foundation CEO Bruce Lindsey and Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Clinton lawyer David Kendall signed a separate Jan. 5, 2009, letter outlining “voluntary steps…President Clinton intends to take to assist Senator Clinton to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with her duties as Secretary of State.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said that the actual language of the pledge is “not surprisingly, very lawyerly… [and] there is an argument to be made that Clinton herself has not violated what was in the pledge.”
“Whether she or her aides have violated the spirit of the pledge…yeah, of course they have,” McGehee said. “The notion of continuing contact between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department — that was not supposed to happen.”
A Washington-based spokesman for Chagoury, said in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday that Chagoury had been seeking to contact someone in the State Department to offer his perspective on the coming elections in Lebanon. He had not been seeking official action by the State Department. He said that no conversation ever took place.
The emails, which Clinton failed to include in the “work-related” cache she turned over to the State Department, show open lines of communication between the old Clinton hands running the family’s multimillion-dollar charity and those who’d moved on to help her run the State Department. The State Department was forced to turn over the emails to Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, in a Freedom of Information Act case.
The newly released emails became immediate fodder for Donald Trump’s campaign and other critics, who’ve charged the Clintons with using the foundation as a vehicle to peddle influence and employ top aides between campaigns while reaping positive headlines for its charitable work.
“It’s called pay for play,” Trump said at a rally Wednesday. “And some of these [revelations] were really, really bad and illegal. If it’s true, it’s illegal. You’re paying and you’re getting things.”
Ethicists tended to agree that while there may be no evidence of a deliberate violation of Clinton’s pledge, the emails underscored the blurry lines between the globe-spanning charity and Clinton’s work as the nation’s top diplomat.
“The Clinton Foundation was taking money from anybody who would give it, and the biggest contributions were from people who had business before the State Department,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
“They didn’t follow the pledge. … I don’t think anyone in the foundation sought to deliberately violate the pledge, I just don’t think they cared about it,” he added.
This isn’t the first time this summer the Clinton campaign has had to address lingering controversies related to the Clinton Foundation. In June, emails revealed that Mills had pushed to name a Clinton bundler and foundation donor, Chicago securities trader Rajiv Fernando, to a seat on the sensitive International Security Advisory Board — a position he was forced to give up two days later after ABC News asked for his resume.
Judicial Watch has been periodically releasing emails related to Clinton’s role at State for months, and the drip of revelations is likely to continue. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, meanwhile, is hinting his organization will leak foundation-related e-mails before the election.
To some, the campaign’s passivity in response to the email releases is baffling.
“I think that this is the kind of situation where knowing that there are trust issues to begin with, and knowing that the Clintons always seem to be surrounded by scandal, you’d think they’d want to rip the Band-Aid off, and that’s not the strategy they’re pursuing,” said Jennifer Lawless, professor of government at American University.
Clinton herself argued during her confirmation hearings that there was no real conflict, since neither she nor her husband had a financial interest in the foundation. And the campaign’s response to the latest email batch — emphasizing that Band was working in his role as an aide to Bill Clinton, not an employee of the foundation — similarly hinges on obscure legal reasoning.
“It would be useful for Hillary Clinton to recognize that that kind of a behemoth fundraising operation was irresponsible,” Holman said.
“I don’t think there was sincere intent to sell favors on her part,” he added, “but I know full well on the part of the donors that was their purpose…they knew it was essentially throwing money at the feet of not only the Secretary of State, but potentially the next president.”
But Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration, suggested the pay-to-play issue is “not just a Clinton problem, it’s a bigger problem.”
Normally, he said, the conflicts arise out of requests from run-of-the-mill political contributors, rather than from foreign donors to a charity. But everybody wants a favor or access, “and of course many of the ambassadors are themselves contributors to the president’s political party.”