PT: First off, I want to make clear that there's no doubt that the Clinton Foundation has done a lot of great charitable work. But charities can't just do charitable work most of the time; they're legally required to do that 100% of the time. The foundation has raised over two billion dollars. If only a small percentage of that is mismanaged and/or used for political purposes, that's many millions of dollars. Harper's Magazine had an in-depth investigative article last year that called the foundation a "slush fund" for the Clintons. So there's that worry. But that's just part of the problem.
JB: Don't stop now! What else is going on over there?
PT: The way the Clinton Foundation works, virtually everything it does is problematic. Simply put, nothing like it has ever existed in politics before. I thought a 2015 Washington Post investigative article put it well: "At its heart, The Clinton Foundation is an ingenious machine that can turn something intangible - the Clintons' global goodwill - into something tangible: money. For the Clintons' charitable causes. For their aides and allies. And, indirectly, for the Clintons themselves." What that means is that even if the foundation does something that is 100% charitable, there still could be a disturbing quid pro quo element to it.
JB: Can you give us a concrete example? This is still a bit abstract.
PT: The timeline quotes a non-profit official who says, "The word was out to these groups that one of the best ways to gain access and influence with the Clintons was to give to this foundation. This shows why having public officials, or even spouses of public officials, connected with these non-profits is problematic." And a former long-time State Department official said that donors were clearly "looking to build up deposits in the 'favor bank' and to be well thought of" by the Clintons.
A lot of rich people and corporations donate a certain amount to charity every year, regardless. If they give to a typical charity like Oxfam or the United Way, they're not going to get any extra political benefit from it. But if they give to the Clinton Foundation, that might win them future favors with the Clintons. So it's no wonder the foundation has gone from nothing to one of the biggest in just one decade. Consider for instance that nearly 200 major donors to the foundation also had important business that was influenced by State Department decisions at a time when Hillary Clinton was running the department. How can we know if those donations had an influence or not? As Vox has put it, "Ultimately, it is impossible to tell where one end of the two-headed Clinton political and philanthropic operation ends and where the other begins."
JB: Isn't it suggestive that between 2010 and 2012, the "foundation incorrectly list[ed] no donations whatsoever from foreign governments in its yearly tax returns"? If there was no problem, why cover it up?
PT: Yes. Those just happen to be the three full years Hillary was secretary of state. I don't think many people realize how often the foundation has been caught violating their own transparency rules and standards. Personally, I was shocked. It's very hard to prove a quid pro quo unless you find a recording of someone handing a bag of money to someone while saying, "I'll give you this money if you do the following favor for me." It's usually more subtle than that. We can see many instances where there's a suspicious connection between money given to the foundation and then the donors expecting favorable political considerations in return.
JB: This sounds like something happening in a banana republic, not here. Isn't it also important to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest?
PT: Yes. And in fact, the vast majority of what the Clinton Foundation does takes place in the Third World, where corruption is all too common. Consider the case of Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining financier who has closely allied himself with the Clinton Foundation. He's donated tens of millions to the foundation, but I don't see how it can be denied that he has gained far more than that in profits. He even once commented, "All of my chips, almost, are on Bill Clinton. He's a brand, a worldwide brand, and he can do things and ask for things that no one else can."
Giustra has been involved with the Clintons and the Clinton Foundation in many countries, but let's just look at one, Colombia. From 2005 onward, Bill Clinton arranged a series of meetings between Giustra and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, in which Clinton was frequently present. Starting in 2007, Giustra's company signed big contracts worth hundreds of millions, gaining control of prime oil fields and forests (for logging) in Colombia. Then, in 2010, both Bill and Hillary Clinton went to Colombia with Giustra and met Uribe again. Uribe has been widely criticized for human rights abuses, and US intelligence had even linked him to Colombian drug cartels. Hillary, who was secretary of state by this time, was warned not to praise Uribe. But she praised him in a public speech, and then changed her stance on a trade deal with Colombia, a deal that would greatly benefit foreign investors like Giustra. The trade deal passed Congress the next year and became law. This was followed by more donations from both Giustra and his company to the Clinton Foundation.
Now, as usual, we're not privy to any private discussions and no evidence of an explicit quid pro quo can be found. But clearly A) the Clinton Foundation benefitted from big donations by Giustra and his company, B) Giustra made many times more than his donations with profits in Colombia alone, and C) Uribe benefitted from the positive press and the trade agreement.
Who lost out? American workers, because of more US jobs going to Colombia, and Colombian workers, because the trade agreement was weak on labor and environmental provisions. For instance, workers for Giustra's company went on strike, and justifiably so. There were media reports that they were treated like slaves in "concentration camp-like" conditions. But the Colombian military aggressively put down the strike.
JB: I'm glad you brought up the Giustra example. I was thinking of him, too. That brings me to this: At the end of the day, the foundation is very much connected to Hillary. Its workings affect and reflect the kind of candidate she is, and the kind of president she would be. Would you agree with that statement?
PT: Definitely. Here's how The New Republic described how the Clinton Foundation works: "It's hard to shake the sense that it's not all about saving the world. There's an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners, the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity." That's what we keep seeing over and over again, suspicious conflicts of interest. Bill and Hillary Clinton have refused to say they'll disconnect themselves from the foundation if Hillary is elected president. The best we've gotten is that Bill has said he'll stop giving paid speeches. So one can already anticipate the conflicts of interest to come, but on an even grander scale, since the presidency is so much more powerful.