Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might have had her last pleasant day for quite some time on Tuesday when she received $300,000 to gush insipid platitudes about glass ceilings and everyone coming together for altruism’s sake in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the story involving the Clinton Foundation’s scandalous sources of financing have been gaining steam for weeks. Late Wednesday night, it exploded.
On the 19th, the Clinton Foundation revealed that it might shift its policy on accepting foreign donations if Hillary Clinton decides to mount a presidential bid. The foundation did not, however, commit to rejecting foreign donations entirely, a practice from which many Clinton allies have long urged the foundation to abstain. “Democrats in several states that vote early in the presidential nominating process said Thursday they were uneasy with the donations from Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and other nations,” The Wall Street Journal reported on the 19th. These warnings proved prescient.
Outwardly, the Clinton Foundation insisted that it had ceased to accept funds from foreign sources after 2008 so as to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest with Hillary serving as America’s chief diplomat. “During Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, the foundation banned all donations from foreign governments due to conflict of interest it would pose for the foundation and the Obama administration,” CNN reported. “Clinton stepped down as America’s top diplomat in early 2013 and the foundation began, once again, to collect donations from foreign governments like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.”
Since its founding in 2001, the Clinton Foundation has amassed $2 billion in contributions, and many of those donations came from sources in foreign governments and businesses. Despite the fact that Clinton has been out of public office for two years, activists still warned that these contributions might soon prove ethically problematic. But the political press seemed initially inclined to frame the Clinton Foundation’s questionable funding sources as a political attack line, and a subject that primarily interested Republicans.
“GOP seeks to make Clinton Foundation a 2016 headache,” a CNN headline read. “If the biggest attack on Hillary’s going to be that she raised too much money for her charity, okay, I’ll take that,” Virginia governor and longtime Clinton Ally Terry McAuliffe told The Washington Post. Like so many allegations of unscrupulous behavior that the Clintons manage to convince the press to forget, this one seemed like it might soon join the myriad of questionable episodes in this family’s past that are nothing more than background radiation ahead of 2016.
Shortly before 9 p.m. on the East Coast on Wednesday, the other shoe in the burgeoning scandal involving the Clinton Foundation’s finances landed with a thud. “The Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars from seven foreign governments during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, including one donation that violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration, foundation officials disclosed Wednesday,” The Washington Post revealed.
In The Post’s sprawling dispatch, it was revealed that the Clinton Foundation sought and accepted donations from foreign governments both during and after Hillary Clinton’s tenure as chief diplomat at Foggy Bottom. “In one instance, foundation officials acknowledged they should have sought approval in 2010 from the State Department ethics office, as required by the agreement for new government donors, before accepting a $500,000 donation from the Algerian government,” The Post’s report read.
The donation from Algeria for Haiti earthquake relief, they said, arrived without notice within days of the 2010 quake and was distributed as direct aid to assist in relief. Algeria has not donated to the foundation since, officials said.
The contribution coincided with a spike in the North African country’s lobbying visits to the State Department.
That year, Algeria spent $422,097 lobbying U.S. government officials on human rights issues and U.S.-Algerian relations, according to filings made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Data tracked by the Sunlight Foundation shows that while the Algerian government’s overall spending on lobbying in the United States remained steady, there was an increase in 2010 in State Department meetings held with lobbyists representing the country — with 12 visits to department officials that year, including some visits with top political appointees. In the years before and after, only a handful of State Department visits were recorded by Algeria lobbyists.
According to the terms of an ethics agreement the Clinton Foundation signed with the Obama administration before Hillary Clinton was tapped to serve as secretary of state, the foundation was not to accept foreign donations but could continue to operate in order to fulfil its philanthropic mission. That agreement was signed by the foundation’s chief executive, Bruce Lindsey, and Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett. The revelation that those terms were violated not only raises questions about Hillary Clinton’s ethics, but also about the White House’s administrational competence.
Sometimes, a good story alone is enough to animate the press corps, and this is a good story. While Republicans are sure to “pounce,” and the media’s focus will almost certainly evolve from “Hillary’s ethical lapses” into “Republicans call Hillary’s ethics into question,” for now the media seems to be more interested in pulling on this thread. And the former secretary of state’s otherwise uncritical coverage in the press has put her at a disadvantage:
Perils of waiting? No Clinton organization, no rapid response shop, so no coordinated defense/explanation on Foundation/donor stories…
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) February 26, 2015
The Clinton camp has been under the impression that they would be able to dodge the media and allow reporters to do their rapid responding for them should a scandalous story like this bubble up to the surface. Even some otherwise sympathetic voices in the reporting establishment, however, do not seem inclined to extend to Clinton the benefit of the doubt here:
Regardless of how wonderful the charity aims were, this is still a conflict of interest and ethical lapse http://t.co/f0BLAaDeZY
— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) February 26, 2015
But who knows how long this will last. CPAC begins today, and the media will have no shortage of GOP officeholders delivering red meat-laden speeches upon which to focus. Surely, one will let loose a sound bite that will compel the nation’s journalistic establishment to devote between two to five days condemning and requesting that other GOP elected officials do the same. For now, however, this revelation is a big problem for Clinton and one which she cannot simply make disappear by sending out her surrogates.
The period in which Clinton could adopt a casual approach to rolling out her 2016 game plan is over. She is on the media’s schedule now.