Hillary Clinton has never been great at understanding that, in politics, perception almost always equals reality. Witness this story that just broke from the Associated Press:
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It's an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.
At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.
So, er, okay.
Let's stipulate two things here before I go any further:
1. Correlation is not causation.
2. Quid pro quos are very, very, very hard to prove.
But, COME ON, MAN. It is literally impossible to look at those two paragraphs and not raise your eyebrows. Half of all of the nongovernmental people Clinton either met with or spoke to on the phone during her four years at the State Department were donors to the Clinton Foundation! HALF.
And those 85 people donated $156 million, which, according to my calculator, breaks down to an average contribution just north of $1.8 million. (Yes, I know that not everyone gave the same amount.)
It just plain looks bad. Really bad.
No one is alleging that the Clinton Foundation didn't (and doesn't) do enormous amounts of good around the world. It does. (That's for you, my dearest Twitter haters.) But what the Clinton Foundation does with the money it receives isn't the point here. At issue is whether there was a too-fuzzy line between Clinton's work at the State Department and the contributions being made to the foundation. And while nothing in the AP story is proof of any wrongdoing, it is proof of bad judgment.
There's no planet on which this sentence could ever be good for a politician running for office -- much less the presidency: "More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation."
What's remarkable to me is that no one -- not Clinton, not her most loyal lieutenant, Huma Abedin, not Bill Clinton -- saw the possible appearance of a conflict of interest inherent in this setup. Especially because Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions were never not a thing when she was at the State Department. It was always a possibility that she would run again for president. And yet, this.
The argument from Clinton's campaign and her loyalists to this latest news will go something like this: She met with these people because they had legitimate business before the State Department. Whether or not they donated to the Clinton Foundation was not part of her calculations for deciding whether to take a meeting or a phone call. The donations are purely coincidental.
Simplify that line of defense and you get this: Trust us. Trust us that donations to the Clinton Foundation were totally isolated from Clinton's official business at State. It's impossible to prove us right. But trust us.
That's exactly the argument that Clinton is making when it comes to the 30,000-plus emails that were permanently deleted from her private email server because her team of lawyers deemed them entirely personal in nature. Even though those lawyers didn't read the emails and we know from FBI Director James B. Comey that several thousand work-related emails that Clinton didn't turn over were found in other places, we need to simply trust Clinton that this was all done on the up and up.
To be clear: I have no evidence -- none -- that Clinton broke any law or did anything intentionally shady. But, man oh man, does this latest news about the Clinton Foundation cloud her campaign's attempts to paint the charity group and her State Department as totally separate and unconnected entities.
If you are Donald Trump -- or any Republican -- trying to sell the idea that the Clintons are and always have operated on a "pay to play" model, you just got a gift more amazing than you could have ever hoped to get. Trump has to date looked any number of gift horses in the mouth. Will he do it again?