Clinton Foundation: We're not returning Weinstein's money, thank you

Saturday’s question to Chelsea Clinton, which drew two awkward non-responses, finally gets an answer today. A Clinton Foundation spokesman tells the Daily Mail that they will not return donations from Harvey Weinstein, amounting to as much as $250,000, after allegations have emerged about his being a serial sexual predator. For one thing, the money’s long been spent:

A spokesperson for the Clinton Foundation told that the group will not return Weinstein’s donations, which totaled between $100,000 and $250,000.

He said Weinstein’s last contribution to the group was in 2014.

The spokesman said the foundation already spent the money on its programs, such as lowering the cost of HIV medication and supporting women and girls in developing countries.

The question of Weinstein’s money has prompted a debate about just how far politicians, political organizations, and charities have to go to distance themselves from scandal-tainted benefactors. Roll Call’s Walter Shapiro gripes that Republicans are hypocrites for attempting to tar Hillary with Weinstein in the Age of Trump, and about the divestment demand in general:

The RNC talking points are emblematic of why politics has become a house of ill repute. These days, there is no partisan argument that is too cretinous or too hypocritical to be brandished against the opposition. For the Republicans — with Trump in the White House — to portray the Democrats as uniquely solicitous of sexual predators assumes that the typical American voter is an amnesiac with the intellect of a dead flashlight battery.

None of this is to deny that Weinstein had dozens of enablers, including a few in Democratic politics. With Weinstein offering an easy entree to Hollywood glamor, it was tempting to ignore the vague rumors about his personal conduct. As a result, the former first family obviously skimped on due diligence this year when they arranged for Malia Obama to serve an internship with the Weinstein Company.

Most Democratic senators who solicited and received Weinstein’s campaign cash probably gave the entire transaction little thought. Weinstein was not a felon, a foreigner or a business fraud, so his contributions never set off any alarm bells. No one in politics has ever articulated a policy of accepting campaign cash only from donors of proven high moral character. …

This does not mean that a congressional incumbent is automatically off the hook if a close friend and loyal donor is indicted for bank fraud. And it is certainly legitimate to ask questions if a senator spent the Christmas holidays at the vacation home of someone now accused of sexual misconduct. But all this presupposes a much closer relationship than merely cashing campaign checks.

Well, it matters if the donor in question isn’t just cutting $2700 checks but throws gala fundraisers that put almost two million dollars into a candidate’s coffers at a pop, and who later gets invitations from said candidate to exclusive-access parties. It matters especially if the donor turns out to be a decades-long sexual predator and the candidate ran as the Defender of All Women, who still won’t address her own husband’s victims in anything but dismissive terms. Speaking of which, it matters even more when the donor provided funds for the husband’s legal defense when those allegations emerged. Taking five days to issue a “shocked and appalled” statement about such a close benefactor in the middle of a book tour is at least basic incompetence, and certainly noteworthy considering that candidate’s insistence on staying in national politics.

Politics relies on perception as well as policy. Getting rid of Weinstein’s cash is good for perception in politics, even on a symbolic level, especially since the damage of embracing a scandal-ridden figure like Weinstein is usually immediate. That might apply to charitable organizations too, but if the money has already been spent, it risks becoming unfairly punitive.

It also risks being ironically counterproductive in some instances. The Daily Mail notes that Rutgers has refused to return a $100,000 Weinstein grant for its feminist studies program, but USC will send back $5 million for a program aimed at boosting female filmmakers. Is that the wise course? Shouldn’t the solution to the Weinsteins of the entertainment industry aim at putting women in more positions of power and accountability in order to give victims of this kind of abuse an outlet to expose it sooner and more effectively? How does taking $5 million from this program and handing it back to Harvey make the situation better for young women looking to enter the film industry on their own terms?

This brings us back to the Clinton Foundation, which is a charity only in the strict legal sense. It operated as a political organization for its entire existence, an influence-building structure that allowed the Clintons to keep paying salaries to key personnel and keep big-ticket donors within a glamorous inner circle. Even its charitable functions existed only to boost the political fortunes of Clinton Inc and the march back to the White House.

The timing of that final Weinstein donation is interesting for reasons unrelated to the scandal. By 2014, Hillary Clinton had conducted her book tour for the memoir Hard Choices, and had begun to transition to campaign mode for her presidential run. Hillary no longer needed the foundation for keeping talent in-house and working the big-ticket donor list; she needed people donating directly to her campaign and the DNC. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that foundation donations “tanked” in 2015, as was widely reported late last year.

Now that it’s more or less defunct in that sense, the big-ticket donors won’t be all that engaged in it either, so they probably don’t have the cash to spare. But it was that dynamic that Weinstein exploited to amplify his power and make him seem even more unassailable to his victims, and the Clinton Foundation should want to distance themselves from that as much as possible. They don’t want to give back the money, which is also certainly noteworthy. Why not screen those funds off and create a fund to assist women victimized by sexual assault and harassment in the workplace? That would be a public relations win, but clearly the Clinton circle remains just as clueless on messaging as they were over the last few years.