President Obama and Hillary Clinton. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

When Hillary Clinton was nominated to be secretary of state, the senators voting to confirm her asked detailed questions about how she would avoid conflicts of interest -- for instance, donors using the Clinton Foundation to curry favor with her in order to influence official acts from a Clinton-run State Department.

In response to written questions from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), Clinton assured that the two worlds would be kept separate. She even said she wanted to avoid the appearance of anything amiss.

On three separate occasions, in fact, she wrote that she believed that the "steps already being taken are sufficient to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

That promise is being tested these days, as reports about potential overlap between Clinton Foundation and State Department business have percolated. First came emails from a top foundation aide seeking employment for another foundation staffer, and a contact in Lebanon for a Nigerian donor to the Clinton Foundation. Then came an Associated Press report that said more than half of the nongovernmental figures who met with Clinton during a portion of her tenure happened to be Clinton Foundation donors. (The Clinton campaign has accused the AP of cherry-picking data.) And on Thursday afternoon, the conservative group Judicial Watch released more emails from Clinton's time as secretary of state showing the same top Clinton Foundation aide, Doug Band, sought a diplomatic passport by reaching out to a top Clinton State Department aide, Huma Abedin. Abedin agreed to help.

So the obvious question: What, precisely did Clinton and the foundation promise when it came to keeping the two worlds separate -- and, in the words of Clinton, avoiding "even the appearance of a conflict of interest?"

Let's review the two key documents, and then break it all down.

1. The State Department ethics agreement

In a Jan. 5, 2009, letter to the State Department, Clinton laid out what she would personally do to avoid ethical issues when it came to the Clinton Foundation and its subsidiaries. She said she would avoid the following things without obtaining a waiver or qualifying for an exemption.

She wrote: "I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter..."

  1. "...that has a direct and predictable effect on my financial interests or those of any person whose interests are imputed to me."
  2. "...that has a direct and predictable effect upon this foundation."
  3. "...involving specific parties in which The William J. Clinton Foundation (or The Clinton Global Initiative) is a party or represents a party."
  4. "...that has a direct and predictable effect upon [Bill Clinton's] compensation from persons or entities that pay him."
  5. "...involving specific parties in which a client of my spouse is a party or represents a party."

She also said she would recuse herself "on a case by case basis in any particular matter in which, in my judgment, I determine that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question my impartiality," unless she had authorization to participate.

2. The Memorandum of Understanding

There also was an agreement -- specifically, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) -- entered into by the Clinton Foundation and the office of President-elect Barack Obama on Dec. 12, 2008.

The notable points included:

  1. The Clinton Foundation would disclose its contributors: "... The Foundation will publish its contributors this year. During any service by Senator Clinton as Secretary of State, the Foundation will publish annually the names of contributors."
  2. Bill Clinton would not "personally solicit funds" for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a subsidiary of the Clinton Foundation, and its annual meeting in New York to address global issues such as poverty, health and climate change.
  3. CGI also would not accept contributions from foreign governments, except through attendance fees, and it would suspend plans to do international events such as the one held annually in New York.
  4. Other subsidiaries, including the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, which hadn't been disclosing donors, would disclose any new contributors or increased contributions beyond what donors had already been giving: "... The Foundation will share such countries and the circumstances of the anticipated contribution with the State Department designated agency ethics official for review, and as appropriate, the State Department's designated agency ethics official will submit the matter for review by a designated official in the White House Counsel's Office."
The bottom line

There is still nothing in the emails showing interactions between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department that constitutes a smoking gun. And indeed, the question of whether Clinton and/or her State Department actually violated the bargain she made before she became secretary of state is a matter of debate.

It is notable that Clinton's letter to the State Department specifically had to do with her own personal conduct. So far, the emails we've seen involve Clinton Foundation employees like Band dealing with State Department staff like Abedin.

Abedin is as close to Clinton as you can get, which is what makes Band's emails seeking assistance from her look bad; they suggest that Clinton Foundation and State Department business clearly weren't kept completely separate. But Abedin is not Clinton, and until we see evidence that Clinton herself intervened in any of these matters, there isn't a clear violation of anything in the letter.

Nor have we seen anything in recent weeks that directly contradicts what we see in the Memorandum of Understanding. There have been instances in which the Clinton foundation didn't disclose donations as promised, including a $500,000 contribution from Algeria in 2010 that wasn't disclosed until 2015. But these don't speak to the kind of intermingling between the State Department and Clinton Foundation that Clinton is being accused of overseeing today.

Perhaps the most relevant promise Clinton made was in those written responses to Lugar and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which she said three times that she believed that what she was doing would "avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Even some Democrats have acknowledged that the most recent disclosures raise valid questions about the appearance of a conflict of interest.

As the New York Time editorial board wrote this week: "... The emails and previous reporting suggest Mr. [Donald] Trump has reason to say that while Mrs. Clinton was secretary, it was hard to tell where the foundation ended and the State Department began."

The fact that State Department aides responded to requests from Clinton Foundation aides at all makes that appearance possible -- and troublesome for Clinton.