Richard W. Painter
When I was the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, I asked many prospective administration officials if they would sell stock in companies, give up stock options, step down from nonprofit boards or make other painful choices to enter public service. Some balked. I told them that someone more important than I was, perhaps the president or the White House chief of staff, would ask them, “Do you want this job or don’t you?”
I know about the difficult questions, and entanglements, that crop up in public service. I believe that Hillary Clinton has asked and successfully answered those questions as they pertain to the Clinton Foundation. There is little if any evidence that federal ethics laws were broken by Mrs. Clinton or anyone working for her at the State Department in their dealings with the foundation. Unfortunately, the foundation is still fuel for Mrs. Clinton’s persistent critics.
These critics have yet to point to any provision of the federal statutes or ethics regulations that was violated by Secretary Clinton or her staff in their dealings with the foundation and its principals, agents and donors. Was there favoritism? Probably, yes. But laws were not broken. If favoritism by political appointees toward outside persons and organizations were illegal, the United States government would be quite different than it is today.
White House political appointees and members of Congress show favoritism regularly, from how quickly they return campaign contributors’ telephone calls to which meeting requests they honor to who gets what they want in the policy arena.
This kind of access is the most corrupting brand of favoritism and pervades the entire government. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, top ambassadorial posts routinely go to campaign contributors. Yet more campaign contributors hound these and other State Department employees for introductions abroad, preferred access and advancement of trade and other policy agendas. More often than not the State Department does their bidding.
Meanwhile, those of us who know and are frustrated about the way our government works breathe a collective yawn at the unsurprising news that the Clinton Foundation or some other nonprofit also gets what appears to be favorable treatment by a government agency. Lots of people and groups get favorable treatment, and most of these are interested in making money rather than giving it away.
The problem is that it does not matter that no laws were broken, or that the Clinton Foundation is principally about doing good deeds. It does not matter that favoritism is inescapable in the federal government and that the Clinton Foundation stories are really nothing new. The appearances surrounding the foundation are problematic, and it is and will be an albatross around Mrs. Clinton’s neck.
Mrs. Clinton’s critics — many of whom have spent more than 20 years exploiting every opening the Clintons give them (of which there are many) — will continue to hound Mrs. Clinton about the foundation throughout the campaign and, should she win, during her presidency.
This is not the typical foundation funded by family wealth earned by an industrialist or financier. This foundation was funded almost entirely by donors, and to the extent anyone in the Clinton family “earned” the money, it was largely through speaking fees for former President Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton when she was not secretary of state. This dependence on donations — a scenario remarkably similar to that of many political campaigns — means that the motivations of every single donor will be questioned whenever a President Clinton does anything that could conceivably benefit such donors.
Removing Bill Clinton from the foundation, and leaving Chelsea in place, as the foundation currently intends to do if Mrs. Clinton wins, does not solve the problem. Such an arrangement not only suggests a strong possibility of Bill’s and Hillary’s returning after a Hillary Clinton administration is over, but also that the foundation is being used to further Chelsea’s career and financial ambitions. The truth may be the other way around. But truth matters little in Washington, particularly when one group of politicians and their supporters accuses another of being “unethical.”
This may be a difficult choice for the Clintons, but the answer is obvious. The family should promise now that if Hillary is elected president, all of the Clinton family members will step down from all positions with the foundation and they will not return. The foundation should continue to go about its business, but the Clintons should do something else. And in the meantime, between now and the election, the foundation should immediately suspend all fund-raising and acceptance of donations, not just foreign donations, as it has already done.
As for Chelsea Clinton, anti-nepotism laws, strengthened after President Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as attorney general, could prevent her mother from appointing her to some of the highest government positions. But she could give her mother informal advice, and there are a great many government jobs for which she would be eligible. She does not need the Clinton Foundation to succeed in life.
Millions of American voters will want to know whether Hillary Clinton really wants this job, which is the highest office in a government that spends more money in a single day than the entire net worth of the Clinton Foundation.
I’m a Republican, but I believe that Hillary Clinton is the only qualified major party candidate in the race and she should become president. Yet to win, and certainly to succeed as president, she needs to demonstrate that she understands how much appearances matter, as well as facts and law, and that the president should not unnecessarily open herself up to attack.