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The Senate's Advice to Hillary Clinton

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

AT THE outset of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's otherwise gentle and uninformative confirmation hearing for Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) clearly spelled out the problem presented by foreign contributions to Bill Clinton's foundation. "The Clinton Foundation," he said, "exists as a temptation for any foreign entity or government that believes it could curry favor through a donation. It also sets up potential perception problems with any action taken by the secretary of state in relation to foreign givers or their countries."

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"Every new foreign donation that is accepted by the foundation comes with the risk that it will be connected in the global media to a proximate State Department policy or decision," Mr. Lugar added. "Foreign perceptions are incredibly important to U.S. foreign policy, and mistaken impressions or suspicions can deeply affect the actions of foreign governments toward the United States." The senator concluded that "the only certain way to eliminate this risk" is for the Clinton Foundation to refuse new foreign donations while Ms. Clinton is secretary of state.

Mr. Lugar was only stating the obvious. The Clinton Foundation, which has pursued such worthy projects as combating HIV/AIDS and climate change, has collected millions in donations from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf governments, as well as from prominent supporters of Israel, Indian industrialists and the Blackwater security firm -- to name just a few of the potentially sensitive cases. Questions continue to arise about apparent conflicts between Ms. Clinton's actions as a senator and the foundation's fundraising: The Associated Press reported yesterday that Ms. Clinton intervened at least six times in government issues directly affecting firms or individuals tied to contributions to her husband's foundation.

Yet senators mostly shied away yesterday from probing this obvious minefield -- or, in the case of several Democrats, endorsed the loophole-ridden disclosure agreement the Clintons negotiated with President-elect Barack Obama. Ms. Clinton said nothing about the issue in her opening statement. When she was pressed for more disclosure by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), she stonewalled: "All the answers are in the record," and "there is no intention to amend" the memorandum negotiated with Mr. Obama.

To his credit, Mr. Lugar released a list of improvements that former president Clinton could make to the disclosure agreement. These are eminently sensible: For example, instead of disclosing new foreign contributions only once a year, the foundation would immediately report all gifts of $50,000 or more, and all such donations from foreigners at the time they are pledged. Also, a State Department ethics review would cover all donations above $50,000 from foreign sources -- and not just foreign governments. Ms. Clinton would be doing herself, and Mr. Obama, a favor by pressing her husband to accept greater disclosure or, better yet, to suspend foreign fundraising. Otherwise, the questions raised by senators yesterday will haunt her, and her president, throughout their tenure.

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