Almost from the moment Hillary Rodham Clinton began angling for a second bid for the White House, her strategists reportedly struggled with the question of how best to deploy her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to avoid a repeat of his dreadful missteps during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Bill Clinton, by many measures, is one of the shrewdest and most knowledgeable politicians of modern times. And yet he was responsible for some of the worst moments in his wife’s ill-fated campaign against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. He frequently meddled in her campaign tactics, grabbed attention away from his wife with off-handed remarks and infuriated many African-American voters by diminishing Obama’s victory over Hillary in the South Carolina primary.
Now he has granted an interview to NBC’s Cynthia McFadden on the raging political debate over the fundraising practices of the Clinton Foundation. At issue is whether Bill and Hillary Clinton engaged in influence peddling of sorts while Hillary was secretary of state both to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for global philanthropic activities and to bolster their personal wealth through Bill’s high priced speaking engagements.
If the interview is a foretaste of Bill Clinton’s new role in championing his wife’s second campaign for the White House, then he may once again prove to be more of a liability than an asset.
Prickly, unyielding and occasionally combative during the interview – which was taped while he was touring projects in Africa -- Clinton said he had no regrets about accepting tens of millions of dollars in foreign cash for his foundation, including from countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco with terrible records on human rights for women.
He suggested that he and his wife were the victims of a double-standard among journalists and conservative critics – just stopping short of positing another “right-wing conspiracy.” He also dismissed out of hand suggestions that foreign leaders attempted to use contributions to the foundation or speaking fees for him of up to $500,000 a pop to influence U.S. foreign policy while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we have never done anything knowingly inappropriate in terms of taking money to influence any kind of American government policy,” he said. “That just hasn't happened.”
For good measure, Clinton quoted his wife as telling him, “No one has ever tried to influence me by helping you.”
When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, the foundation agreed to disclose the names of its donors at the request of the Obama White House. After she left the administration in February 2013, the foundation was renamed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, with Hillary Clinton taking a very active role.
She resigned from the foundation’s board shortly before she formally announced her campaign for president April 12, and the foundation subsequently said it would modify its policies throughout the campaign to provide more transparency and to limit foreign donors to just six western countries.
“It’s an acknowledgement that we're going to come as close as we can during her presidential campaign to following the rules we followed when she became secretary of state,” Bill Clinton explained to NBC News.
But recent revelations about the foundation’s operations and sources of income have rocked Clinton’s fledgling presidential campaign and drawn sharp criticism from Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus and a handful of Republican presidential aspirants.
What’s more, a new book by Peter Schweizer suggests that donors to the Clinton Foundation received preferential treatment from Hillary Clinton when she served as secretary of state. The book, Clinton Cash, says that individuals and organizations -- some closely connected to foreign governments -- made significant donations to the Clinton Foundation, or paid up to half a million dollars to hear Bill Clinton deliver a speech. In exchange, the book implies – but never proves --they received favorable treatment when they brought business before the State Department.
On April 26, Maura Pally, the acting CEO of the Clinton Foundation, published a blog post on the foundation website explaining the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and a Canadian charity called the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership. Frank Giustra, who founded the charity, is a Canadian billionaire whose company received permission to sell U.S. uranium-mining rights to a Russian company heavily influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The sale has been strongly criticized by Republicans in particular as against the national interest, which has sharpened interest in Giustra’s connection to the Clintons. Last week, the Clinton Foundation acknowledged that Giustra Enterprise kept its donors secret, despite a 2008 ethics agreement with the Obama administration vowing to reveal the New-York based foundations donors, according to The Washington Post.
Giustra has committed more than $100 million to the work of the Clinton Foundation – making it one of the largest individual donors. And Frank Giustra has frequently provided Bill Clinton with the use of a luxurious passenger jet to travel overseas, the newspaper reported.
Pally also admitted that the charity had made mistakes on how it listed government donors on at least five annual form 990 tax returns and said it was working to make sure it does not happen in the future.
During the interview with NBC, Bill Clinton said that he was proud of the work of his foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative that had leveraged billions of dollars in assistance to 43 million people in 180 countries.”
As for criticisms of the foundation and his family, the former president complained that there is a double standard in American politics in which he and his foundation come under intense scrutiny while political organizations, like the ones headed by conservative Koch Brothers that aren’t obliged to disclose the source of their contributions, draw far less attention.
Clinton asserted, “All I'm saying is the idea that there's one set of rules for us and another set for everybody else is true,” Clinton said. “The guy that filled out the [990 tax] forms made an error,” he added. “Now that is a bigger problem, according to the press, than the other people running for president willing to take dark money, secret money, secret from beginning to end.”
He claimed there has been a “very concerted effort to bring the foundation down” and hinted that he might even step down as its head if his wife is elected president. “I might if I were asked to do something in the public interest that I had an obligation to do,” he said. “Or I might take less of an executive role. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
However, Clinton was adamant about one thing: He will not stop accepting huge fees for speeches even while he has an estimated net worth of $80 million, according to some reports. “I gotta pay our bills,” he said. “And I also give a lot of it to the foundation every year.”
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