By Matthew E. Milliken
May 9, 2015
Let’s acknowledge Hillary Clinton’s historic accomplishments up front. She was the the most politically engaged First Spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first serious female presidential candidate of either major American political party. And she was the third woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state.
There are reasons to admire to Hillary Clinton. (Henceforth Clinton, in this post; I’ll use “Bill” to refer to the former president.) If one doesn’t think much of her tenure as First Lady, or of her work as secretary of state, even her enemies must at least grudgingly admit that her 2008 presidential candidacy was a historic milestone for these United States.
But it’s equally true — perhaps more true — that there are reasons to think that Clinton may not be an ideal president or presidential candidate. A number of those have been on display recently.
Let’s go back a couple of months, when The New York Times’s Michael Schmidt reported that Clinton exclusively relied upon personal email accounts for business that she conducted as secretary of state. A number of pundits, including Josh Voorhees of Slate and NPR blogger Domenico Montanaro, have opined that Clinton’s behavior was technically in line with the letter of the law. Here’s Voorhees:
Under a law passed this past November, a government official can use private email accounts to conduct government business — but only if that official copies or forwards the email to his or her government account within 20 days. Violating that law can result in disciplinary action but carries with it no criminal penalties. But Clinton’s private emailing occurred well before that law went into effect. According to the National Archives, the official definition of what constitutes a federal record did not “clearly include electronic records” until Obama signed the 2014 law, which represented “the first change to the definition of a Federal record” since the Federal Records Act was passed in 1950. Similarly, it wasn’t until August 2013 — six months after Clinton had left office — that the National Archives and Records Administration issued guidance making it clear that email records of some senior officials are permanent federal records.
But as both Voorhees and Montanaro wrote, just because Clinton may have obeyed the letter of the law, that doesn’t vindicate her ethically. Voorhees again:
At best, Clinton failed to go the extra mile to make sure her emails were part of the official record; at worst, she intentionally sought out a legal gray area from which to do her business.
Montanaro notes that Clinton in fact may have violated the law if she transmitted or stored classified information in an unauthorized fashion. It may be hard to determine if this occurred, however. Clinton staffers determined which email messages were turned over to the State Department, and the private server Clinton used to receive, send and store emails has evidently been wiped clean.
Not so incidentally, there’s a reason why it’s illegal to store or send classified material in unauthorized ways: Because those ways often are not secure. (Of course, as we also learned in March, sometimes the approved methods aren’t secure, either.) So even if Clinton didn’t transmit or store classified information on her private server, there’s a nontrivial chance that some of her communications may have been subject to eavesdropping.
The next two issues on the Clinton radar are related. The newly released book Clinton Cash by conservative author Peter Schweizer cites numerous instances when Clinton’s stances as secretary of state and as a U.S. senator may have been influenced by donations to her husband or to the Clinton Foundation.
Schweizer seems to have gotten some of his facts wrong. His book cites a fake press release, The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington found, and it erroneously claims that Bill Clinton was paid for speeches he gave to promote disaster relief fundraising following the devastating Haiti earthquake. Schweizer also falsely claimed that Clinton flip-flopped on her support for a civilian nuclear trade deal with India, per PolitiFact’s Lauren Carroll. The left-wing watchdog group Media Matters for America has compiled an extensive list of Schweizer errors, and it appears to be adding new items on a regular basis.
Errors aside, even Schweizer himself admits that he can’t definitively prove that there was a quid pro quo between the Clintons and their donors. According to Pilkington, at the end of Clinton Cash, the author writes, “We cannot ultimately know what goes on in their minds and ultimately prove the links between the money they took in and the benefits that subsequently accrued to themselves, their friends and their associates.”
Still, reporting unrelated to Schweizer’s book has raised a number of questions about the propriety of how the Clintons and their foundation have handled numerous donations. Jonathan Allen of Reuters established that Clinton-led charities failed to disclose all of their donors, as Clinton had promised the president they would do. And the Clintons’ organizations also skirted the spirit, if not the letter, of a 2008 agreement limiting donations from foreign governments, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger reported for The Washington Post in February.
It’s not always the existence of a conflict of interest that counts — sometimes, just the suggestion of a conflict of interest can be damning. This is, in fact, a key reason why many liberals condemn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates for a variety of undisclosed and unaccountable donations to political organizations.
And this is exactly why more liberals should be wary of Clinton’s questionable actions and omissions. As the left-leaning journalist David Sirota noted rather acerbically this week in a Salon article: “The same Democratic Party that slammed the Bush-Halliburton relationship now suggests that this type of behavior is fine and dandy, as long as there wasn’t, say, an email detailing an explicit cash-for-policy trade.”
Recently, yet another liberal journalist found evidence that Clinton isn’t yet fully prepared to deal honestly and openly with the potentially corrosive effects of money in politics. On Wednesday, Patrick Caldwell of Mother Jones reported that the former senator “has yet to answer questions about how transparent she’s willing to be about her political fundraising. When Mother Jones questioned the Clinton camp about whether it will disclose the names and fundraising totals of the key supporters — known as ‘bundlers’ — who raise vast sums of cash, a spokesperson declined to provide an answer, saying only that the campaign was still figuring out its plans.”
During Clinton’s last presidential campaign, Caldwell wrote, the candidate offered minimal information about her bundlers, releasing the names of 324 people who raised contributions of at least $100,000 from various sources. (Federal law caps individual contributions to a single candidate at $5,400 per election cycle, including both primary and general election campaigns; the aforementioned Citizens United ruling affects independent organizations.)
Caldwell concluded his article with this:
But the ’08 Clinton campaign refused to release more specific bundler categories. It remained a mystery which fundraisers just barely crossed the $100,000 threshold, and which ones raised truly massive sums. “The problem is that it’s just in large increments, as opposed to an actual number,” says Public Citizen’s Craig Holman. “It needs to be better than this. When all we can say is, ‘At least $100,000,’ it could be $10 million or $20 million, we don’t know. And the individual who is going to bring in millions of dollars is going to be treated differently than someone who just brought in $100,000. We need to know more information.”
The not-so-small irony here is that, as National Public Radio’s Peter Overby writes, “Campaign finance reform is one of four pillars, ‘four big fights,’ of her campaign, [Clinton] said, along with help for families and communities; a stronger, more balanced economy; and a strong national defense.” As the candidate herself told an Iowa crowd last month, “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccounted money out of it, once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”
As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic nearly two months ago, many of the recent Clinton controversies remind one of earlier brouhahas. Nineteen years ago, questions were raised about attempts by Chinese officials to influence the policies of Bill Clinton’s presidential administration through donations to Democratic political organizations. And investigators and critics spent much of the 1990s decrying various records that had, rather conveniently for the Clintons, not been retained or reliably stored.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Clinton’s candidacy, and these issues are sure to be exploited by critics on the right. It will be interesting to see whether any other Democrat emerges to challenge the presumed 2016 frontrunner.