Clintons aim to keep their worlds from colliding, avoid conflicts of interest

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former president Bill Clinton lead separate professional lives, but their work still intersects.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former president Bill Clinton lead separate professional lives, but their work still intersects. (Peter Morrison/associated Press Ramon Espinosa/associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Since becoming secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton has gone to great lengths to avoid any appearance of undue influence from her husband. Bill Clinton rarely visits the State Department; he never joins his wife's far-flung official trips. With his headquarters in New York and hers in Washington, they live mostly apart.

In August when a student in Congo asked Clinton about her husband's views, she snapped that he "is not the secretary of state" and that she was "not going to be channeling my husband."

Yet the real story is more complicated because, 10 months into her tenure, it is clear that their worlds and their interests cannot avoid intersecting. Hillary Clinton has put problems such as Northern Ireland, Haiti and Third World development near the top of the agenda at the State Department, and they are also part of the former president's charitable mission. Bill Clinton secretly helped push the administration's -- and his wife's -- agenda with North Korea on a trip officially called a humanitarian mission.

For a select group of issues, the combined energies of the Clintons can be potent. Just days after Hillary Clinton appointed Declan Kelly the economic envoy to Northern Ireland, for instance, he turned to her husband for help.

Bill Clinton agreed to include a session on Northern Ireland at his annual philanthropic mega-event, which coincides with the U.N. General Assembly in September. Hundreds of business executives packed a ballroom to hear Clinton and Kelly make their investment pitch. The gathering was, Kelly told the crowd, "a massive assistance to me in my role." After the session, dozens of executives lined up to talk to Kelly, according to one official in attendance.

'A very tricky area'

The Clintons declined requests for interviews, but their aides emphasize that Secretary Clinton is carrying out the Obama administration's foreign policy and say that their shared priorities are a coincidence. Some lawmakers, however, are wary of potential conflicts. Bill Clinton's charitable foundation has received large contributions in recent years from governments such as Saudi Arabia's, as well as Indian tycoons and prominent supporters of Israel -- presenting what Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) called a "multimillion-dollar minefield of conflicts of interest." In response, the former president agreed to release the foundation's donor list and allow ethics officials to review some foreign pledges; the first annual disclosure of contributions since Hillary Clinton was confirmed is weeks away.

"They need to walk a very careful line; it's a very tricky area. Hopefully that is being heeded, in terms of fundraising, by the Clinton Foundation," said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

While the Clintons lead separate professional lives, they deal with some of the same leaders and issues. The William J. Clinton Foundation works in more than 40 countries on health, climate change and economic development, often collaborating with governments. The annual Clinton philanthropic powwow drew 33 presidents and prime ministers -- from Colombia to Kenya to Turkey.

Mindful of concerns about impropriety, and eager to be judged on her own merits, Hillary Clinton has played down her husband's influence.

Pressed whether she and her husband discussed North Korean leader Kim Jong Il or other foreign issues, Clinton told a Thai interviewer in July: "Sometimes we do, because I really value his advice. But he's so busy in his charitable activities right now that there's no real connection between what he's doing and my official capacity."

Friends say the Clintons talk and e-mail frequently and have always been deeply interested in each other's opinions and ideas. "A lot of the overlap in their interests and work you might see now are probably an outgrowth of having worked together on those issues when they were in the White House," said Doug Hattaway, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

That is true of Northern Ireland, where Bill Clinton helped broker the 1998 peace accords. The couple also has a long-standing interest in Haiti. They visited the poverty-stricken country as newlyweds in 1975, and their involvement intensified with the 1994 U.S. military intervention Bill Clinton ordered to dislodge a junta.


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