Bill Clinton sat for an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday to talk about, among other things, the controversy surrounding the Clinton Foundation and his wife's 2016 presidential bid. And, in the course of that conversation, he let loose with this stunner: "Has anybody proved that we did anything objectionable? No."
This is the latest in a string of statements by the former president that suggest he still doesn't grasp why the Clinton Foundation questions continue to swirl and, because of that lack of understanding, remains unable to effectively parry them. Let's go through the problems with Clinton's answer.
First, there's little doubt that some of the donations accepted by the Clinton Foundation have been viewed as objectionable by lots and lots of people. To cite one example: Allowing the Qatar Supreme 2022 Committee, organized to lure the World Cup to the nation, to serve as the main sponsor for a 2013 Clinton Global Initiative event. Qatar has been tied to not only allegations of wide-scale bribery of FIFA to acquire the games but is also the subject of widespread humanitarian concerns regarding the number of deaths related to the construction of the soccer stadiums to host the World Cup in 2022.
So, on its face, the claim that no one has come forward to object to certain donations/donors is just not right.
Then there is the fact that Clinton's answer on the foundation seems to be based on the idea that he and his wife are operating in a legal sphere for the next two years. They're not. They're living in the world of politics -- and the rules of that world are far different than those of a court of law.
Clinton's argument boils down to the idea of a burden of proof. As in, if there's something truly objectionable in what the foundation has done, then someone should prove it. Legally speaking, Clinton's right. If you think he or the foundation broke some sort of law, then you should need to provide conclusive evidence of when, where, why, what and how.
But of course, what we are mostly talking about when it comes to the Clinton Foundation is the gray area between contributions made by donors and decisions made by the foundation that benefited those people. Proving that sort of quid pro quo in a legal setting is virtually impossible barring a smoking gun -- like an e-mail that says: "Mr. X gave $300,000. Let's fund his project now."
In politics, however, gray areas can be exploited to great advantage by your political opponents. Raising questions about the timing between donations to the Clinton Foundation and decisions made that lined the pockets of those donors is totally within the bounds of acceptable -- and effective -- negative messaging. Republicans don't need to prove that the Clinton Foundation did anything untoward. The burden of proof that there was no wrongdoing lies with the Clinton Foundation.
That reality clearly annoys Bill Clinton, and somewhat understandably. After all, the Clinton Foundation is a massive operation and, as Bill likes to point out, does lots and lots of work that has nothing to do with politics. "Do I have the most comprehensive disclosure of any presidential foundation? Yes," Clinton said in that same Bloomberg interview. "Is our -- our disclosures more extensive than most private foundations? Yes, they are, having nothing to do with politics." (Sidebar: It's not clear that Clinton's claim about the foundation's disclosure policies is totally accurate.)
Here's the problem for Bill: No other foundation in the world is run by a former president and a former secretary of state who also happens to be the de facto Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. That fact means that the Clinton Foundation isn't like any other foundation in the world -- and therefore, how all of those other foundations treat disclosure is sort of immaterial.
It's also worth noting here that the successes of the Clinton Foundation in terms of raising money are built on the prominence and political influence of Bill and Hillary Clinton. There are lots and lots of organizations out there that have been far less successful doing what the Clinton Foundation does simply because they lack messengers like Bill and Hillary. And so, when that prominence also subjects the Clinton Foundation to heightened scrutiny, that's the sort of thing that comes with the territory.
Bill Clinton needs to understand that no matter how beneficent he believes the Clinton Foundation is, it's now a major part of the broader political conversation regarding Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. (If you need evidence of that politicization of the foundation, witness the furor over donations to it by ABC newsman George Stephanopoulos.)
He may not like it, but good politicians -- and Bill Clinton is definitely one of those -- deal with the world as it is, not how they want it to be. He has yet to do that.