Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The Clinton Foundation is far cry from 'Watergate all over again'


Let me attempt to state the crux of the Republican attack on the Clinton Foundation -- described by Donald Trump as "Watergate all over again" -- as honestly and plainly as possible:

"Donors to the foundation, including foreign interests, have been rewarded for their donations/bribes by getting access to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, setting up a "pay for play" dynamic that is corrupt to its core."

That's the "smoke," so to speak, and in this context smoke can come in one of two varieties. There's the type of smoke that indicates a real fire burning somewhere that needs to be uncovered, and there's the type of smoke that is blown to obscure the truth. To determine the type of smoke at work in this case, we'll have to go old-school and actually take the time to look at the facts and details.

And look, I understand that some won't choose to walk this path. Some will decide that it's too hard to figure out, so they continue to let other people do their thinking for them. Others won't want to risk learning something that might require them to question their world view, and they'll find it easier and safer to just dismiss it out of hand. So what follows is for those of a hardier sort, those who believe that it is their duty as citizens to get at the truth and make informed judgments about the future of their country.

1.) Let's assume, just for a moment, that the GOP attack is correct, that a "pay-for-play" dynamic had indeed been at work during Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. Right off the bat, we're faced with a major challenge to that narrative: None of the Clintons, including Bill and Chelsea, draw a salary from the foundation nor have they been shown to benefit financially in any way from its work.  What does that mean? It means that at worse, the Clintons are accused of leveraging the office of secretary of state to encourage donations to a charity from which they personally do not benefit.

Put that into perspective: Last week, while Republicans were raising hell about Clinton allegedly selling access to donors to a charity, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden, among other top Republicans, traveled to a ritzy resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

They weren't there for a summer vacation, but to rub elbows for two days with more than 100 of the GOP's top donors, many of whom had flown to Jackson Hole on their private jets. In short, in return for massive donations to the Republican Party, those donors were being given extensive face-to-face access to top political leaders that is unavailable to other Americans. "Pay for play", in other words, and on a grand scale. And in stark contrast to the Clinton Foundation, those donations were going not to charitable work benefiting others, but to political efforts that would directly benefit Ryan and his allies.

There is no rational standard by which you claim that what Clinton is alleged to have done even approaches the corrupting "pay-for-play" ethos that now permeates political fundraising in Washington by both parties.

2.) The Clinton Foundation has earned a "A" rating from CharityWatch. According to the ratings agency, it considers a charity to be "highly efficient" when it spends at least 75 percent of its budget on program delivery, and when it spends $25 or less to raise $100. The Clinton Foundation spends 88 percent of its budget on program delivery; it spends just $2 to raise $100.

“We can only judge organizations based on their own financial disclosures, corporate governance, and level of transparency,” CharityWatch President Danial Borochoff told Fortune . “And by those accounts, the Clinton Foundation has a strong record. They reveal much more information about themselves than many other charities.”

3.) There is little to no evidence that Clinton did sell access to foundation donors.

The Clinton Foundation does much of its work in places such as Africa, Haiti, India, Asia and Latin America. It tackles international issues such as climate change, educational opportunity for girls, children's health, AIDS, agricultural productivity and poverty. The State Department is also deeply involved in those very same regions, working those same international issues. So it's not a scandal that as secretary of state, Clinton would have a lot of contact with many of the same people whom she knew at the foundation. It's an absolute certainty.

Last week, for example, critics focused on two specific instances in which donations to the foundation were alleged to have resulted in meetings with Secretary Clinton.

-- Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain, who sponsors a $32 million scholarship program for Bahraini students under the auspices of the Clinton Foundation, asked for and received a meeting with Secretary Clinton. As outlined in more detail in an earlier post, Bahrain is a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, and Salman is a top defense official and more importantly the designated heir to the Bahraini throne. In the past he has met often with top U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. The notion that he would have to give money to the Clinton Foundation to get a meeting with then-Secretary Clinton is absurd.

-- In its story on the Clinton Foundation, the Associated Press last week focused heavily on the example of Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist. Yunus has worked closely with the Clinton Foundation through his nonprofit Grameen Bank, which offers microloans to help poor women start small businesses. He also met repeatedly with Clinton as secretary of state. The AP story used Yunus as its primary example of the supposedly questionable interplay between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department under Clinton's leadership.

Again, it's absurd. Yunus is not a conniving businessman trying to leverage powerful friends in a scam. He is the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner. He has been awarded the congressional gold medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  His nonprofit has given millions of extremely poor women access to small but crucial amounts of capital to help make better lives for themselves and their families. And when the government of Bangladesh tried to remove him from the Grameen Bank on trumped-up charges, he asked for -- and got -- Clinton's assistance. That's not a scandal, it's called doing the job.

So if you're still reading this, congratulations and thank you. The system assumes that you're not willing to put in the effort to look deeper; you're supposed to just obediently assume that if such serious charges are being made, there must be something concrete to them. That's one of the ways in which the system is rigged against you, and you have refused to play along. No matter what conclusions you have drawn from this, you have committed a subversive act just by caring about what the truth really is.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.