The Clinton Foundation has now acknowledged mistakes in its accounting and has pledged greater transparency into its foreign donations, after the author of a forthcoming book on the foundation’s finances — and their alleged connections to Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State — did a tour on the Sunday shows promoting his forthcoming revelations.
The first glimpse of these came at the end of last week, when the New York Times came out with an investigation into the Clinton Foundation, the State Department, and some very nefarious-sounding players (Russians! Uranium!), growing out of the book, “Clinton Cash” by Peter Schweizer. There are some rather outlandish allegations being made (Mitt Romney said “It looks like bribery”), so we thought it would be good to break this story down, clarify what’s known and what isn’t, and understand what we should take away from it, because it could be a topic of discussion for some time.
The basic facts: This story is about the sale of a controlling stake in a Canadian company called Uranium One to Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency. Because Uranium One controlled uranium mines in the United States, the sale had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment In the United States (CFIUS), part of the executive branch. A number of investors in Uranium One gave donations to the Clinton Foundation during the time the sale was being considered (between 2008 and 2010), in part through the participation of Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining magnate who was a large donor to the Foundation and who had controlled a company that eventually bought Uranium One (according to the Times, Giustra sold his interest in the company in 2007, before the Rosatom deal).
In addition, Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 in 2010 to give a speech to a Russian bank with ties to the Russian government. The U.S. government eventually approved the deal in 2010.
What’s the allegation against Hillary Clinton? The reason this is a story is the potential that there was some quid pro quo involved: that in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation and/or the speech Bill Clinton gave in Russia, Hillary Clinton used her position as Secretary of State to make approval of this sale happen. It need not be explicit, but at the very least there has to be a connection between donations and official action that Clinton took.
What’s the evidence for that allegation? There isn’t any, at least not yet. The only evidence is timing: people who would benefit from the sale made donations to the foundation at around the same time the matter was before the government.
What’s the evidence in Clinton’s favor? Even if Clinton had wanted to make sure the sale was approved, it wouldn’t have been possible for her to do it on her own. CFIUS is made up of not only the Secretary of State, but also the secretaries of Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, and Energy, as well as the heads of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Labor are non-voting members, and CFIUS’s work is also observed by representatives of other agencies like the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget. The idea that Clinton could have convinced all those officials and all those departments to change their position on the sale, even if she had wanted to, borders on the absurd.
Furthermore, the official who was the State Department’s representative on CFIUS at the time, Jose Hernandez, told Time magazine that Clinton did not participate in the evaluation of this deal: “Secretary Clinton never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter,” he said.
So in this case, we have no evidence of a quid pro quo, and we don’t have evidence that Hillary Clinton took any action at all with regard to this sale, in favor of the interests of the donors or otherwise. In interviews, Schweitzer has referred repeated to “dozens of examples” and “a pattern” in which donations are made to the foundation and official action by Hillary Clinton occurs thereafter. His book hasn’t come out, so we don’t yet know what he’s referring to, but in the uranium case, there doesn’t appear to be any official action Hillary Clinton took one way or another.
Schweitzer was pressed on that point yesterday by both Chris Wallace and George Stephanopoulos, and he gave essentially the same answer both times. Here’s what he said on Fox News Sunday:
Well, here’s what’s important to keep in mind: it was one of nine agencies, but any one of those agencies had veto power. So, she could have stopped the deal. So, what’s interesting about this, of all those nine agencies, who was the most hawkish on these types of issues? Hillary Clinton.
So the alleged wrongdoing isn’t that Clinton helped the people who gave donations to the foundation, it’s that she failed to oppose them, something that the secretaries of defense, treasury, and all the other agencies also failed to do, with or without donations to foundations controlled by members of their families. Schweitzer repeatedly compared Clinton to former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who was convicted of corruption, and Sen. Bob Menendez, who is currently under indictment, arguing that in those cases there also wasn’t direct evidence of a quid pro quo. But in those cases there were specific acts that the officials took in support of the person who had lavished gifts on them. In this case, Schweizer’s criticism of Clinton rests on the fact that she failed to intervene in the sale, and came to the same conclusion about it as the heads of eight other agencies did.
But isn’t it possible that people were trying to win influence with her by donating to the Clinton Foundation? It’s certainly possible, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all. Nor would it be surprising if Bill Clinton didn’t go out of his way to disabuse potential donors of the impression that a seven- or eight-figure donation to the foundation for disaster relief, global health, or whatever he was advocating at a particular time, wouldn’t hurt them in whatever business they might have before the U.S. government. But it’s hard to know what they were thinking, and it doesn’t really matter; what matters is what Hillary Clinton did or didn’t do.
Is there anything else problematic relating to the foundation that we’ve recently learned? When Clinton became secretary of state, she made an agreement with the administration to publicly disclose all its donors, but donations from the chairman of Uranium One were not disclosed. We don’t yet know whose fault that was, but it certainly means that someone didn’t do what they should have.
The Clinton Foundation is now acknowledging that some of its donors weren’t properly disclosed, and they say they’re reviewing all their records to see what else may be missing. They’re characterizing it as a clerical error, which is certainly possible; right now there are a cadre of journalists examining the foundation’s donations and its activities around the world to see if there’s anything else that smells fishy.
So what can we draw from this? One of the most important tasks the press has during a presidential campaign is to investigate the candidates — who they are, what they’ve done in the past, and what they plan to do in the future. The investigations of Hillary Clinton will no doubt be vigorous and ongoing.
But given the history of these kinds of investigations — where again and again, dark insinuations of wrongdoing regarding the Clintons were made, then spread widely with the justification that “questions are being raised,” yet the allegations turned out to be either completely false or wildly overblown — we in the media have an obligation to take extra care when a new story like this one comes up. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it or soft-pedal it. But it does mean that we ought to work hard to separate facts from innuendo and speculation.