In retrospect, George Stephanopoulos should not have donated
$50,000 $75,000* to the Clinton Foundation. And he should certainly have mentioned the contributions when interviewing the author of "Clinton Cash," the book that helped rocket the Foundation and its contributors into the forefront of analysis and critiques of the Hillary Clinton campaign. (He and ABC apologized for not doing so.)
What's interesting, though, is that contributions to the Clinton Foundation have only retroactively become politically fraught. When I write that Stephanopoulos should not in retrospect have given the money, I mean it in the sense that Hillary Clinton now regards her Iraq War vote as a mistake: As it turned out, it was a bad call -- but the blame for it doesn't entirely lie with her.
The Clinton Foundation was so politically non-toxic even a few months ago that the foundation arm of News Corporation, parent company of Fox News, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars. (You can find News Corp. and other donors mentioned in this article in our searchable index of Foundation donors.) Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of the conservative site Newsmax, gave a million dollars to support the charity's work. In April, as the Foundation was beginning to be mixed into the 2016 campaign, Ruddy defended its work. "I have been involved with the foundation for over seven years now," he wrote. "During that time, I have always found it nonpartisan. I have never felt the whiff of politics from either its staff or any of its activities."
That aroma now exists. Questions raised by "Clinton Cash" and subsequent reporting about the interplay between donations to the Foundation -- including through its Canadian affiliate -- and the work of the State Department under Hillary Clinton have become central to Republican criticism. Dylan Byers, Politico's media reporter who broke the story (perhaps after Free Beacon forced the issue), tweeted a somewhat fractured analogy:
Notable: @Olbermann suspended at MSNBC for $7,200 in campaign contribs. ABC taking no action re: Stephanopoulos $50k to Clinton Foundation.
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) May 14, 2015
Olbermann's 2010 suspension was for giving to a political campaign, in violation of network rules. (MSNBC's Joe Scarborough suffered a similar fate shortly thereafter.) Stephanopoulos was giving to a nonprofit organization -- one that was run by his former boss. (The day's news seems to have introduced a new generation of people to Stephanopoulos' role in the 1992 election of Bill Clinton -- a role thoroughly documented in the 1992 documentary, "The War Room.")
The irony, of course, is that nonprofits have become far more integrated into politics. The rise of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, which allow money to be raised anonymously and spent on political activity, has reshaped how modern campaigns are run. Jeb Bush's campaign-staff-in-waiting are apparently currently working for a 501(c)(4) his team set up.
The Clinton Foundation wasn't supposed to be that. It was supposed to be a way for Bill Clinton to extend his post-presidential influence and income while doing good around the world. That it bore the name "Clinton" means that it was bound to get wrapped up in politics -- particularly once it became obvious (Jan. 21, 2013) that Hillary Clinton planned to run for the White House again. George Stephanopoulos made a mistake in not revealing his contribution to the organization once he started reporting on its critics. But the contribution only became political once the perception of the foundation shifted earlier this year. That Stephanopoulos is a member of the reviled "mainstream media" means that there's an additional level of piling on.
Expect more like this, from Rand Paul.
Rand Paul says Stephanopoulos shouldn’t moderate 2016 debates: http://t.co/rbFTaWG1FO
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) May 14, 2015
Stephanopoulos made a mistake in not revealing his contribution to the organization once he started reporting on its critics. Frankly, given his past affiliation with the Clintons, avoiding any breach of the wall between him as a member of the media and the family would have been the smart thing to do. But the contribution itself only became political once the perception of the foundation shifted earlier this year.
Ruddy's comment about a "whiff" of politics is a good one. When people start thinking they smell the rotten aroma of unethical political money, that smell -- real or imagined -- transfers easily. The Clinton Foundation tried to separate itself from the campaign last month. It's not going to take -- at least, not until the Clintons are out of politics once again.
* Update: In an interview with Politico, Stephanopoulos says the amount he gave was $75,000 -- and that he would not be hosting any debates.