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How outraged should you be about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's un-campaign is back in the news — not for anything the former Secretary of State has said or done, but over new revelations that her husband's foundation continued to accept money from foreign governments even after Clinton became Secretary of State.

What is the controversy?

After Bill Clinton left office, he set up the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton became a United States Senator. His foundation, among other things, raised funds from foreign governments. Then his wife became Secretary of State and it mostly stopped doing this. But the Wall Street Journal reported on February 18 that the Foundation was back to taking foreign money.

This was immediately followed by a February 19 statement in which the foundation promised that "Should Secretary Clinton decide to run for office, we will continue to ensure the Foundation's policies and practices regarding support from international partners are appropriate, just as we did when she served as Secretary of State." Then on February 25, the Washington Post reported that some foreign money came in while she was Secretary of State after all, including a donation from Algeria to Haiti earthquake relief that clearly violated the official conflict of interest policy at the time.

What's the argument against the Clintons?

So far, nobody of consequence has come out with the aggressive spin that Clinton — or her husband — has been successfully bribed for foreign powers. Among other things, no one has the goods on that. Instead, the Post article and other critical pieces tend to raise the issue in the concern-trolling tense, noting that "Clinton would be likely to showcase her foreign-policy expertise, yet the foundation's ongoing reliance on foreign governments' support opens a potential line of attack for Republicans eager to question her independence as secretary of state and as a possible president."

Lesser charges can also be leveled here, including poor judgment, improper compliance with State Department procedures, and a kind of general political recklessness.


Hey, it's charity. As the Clinton Foundation's Craig Minassian told the Post, "When anyone contributes to the Clinton Foundation, it goes towards foundation programs that help save lives."

Should you be outraged?

In a "Hillary Clinton has been bribed by the government of Algeria" sense, no. There is no evidence of outrageous policymaking or undue influence of foreign donors over the Clinton State Department. It's of course possible that evidence of direct corruption will emerge (obviously a number of journalists are currently looking into it, which seems appropriate) but at the moment it's more smoke than fire.

In the general poor judgment sense, though, you probably should. This was a known issue when Clinton went in to the State Department and both she and the Foundation promised to address it. They did not address it adequately, and didn't even retroactively catch and address the oversight until reporters noted it years later.

There is also a general money-in-politics issue here. It seems plausible that large dollar donors to the Foundation get unusual access to either Bill or Hillary Clinton (or both), which could lend their views disproportionate weight in the policy process, just as you see with any other kind of campaign donation.

The counterargument here is that despite the ban on foreign government campaign contributions, foreign states seeking access actually have plenty of ways to get it — typically by hiring policymakers' former staffers or confidantes — so it's far from clear that the Foundation poses a uniquely pernicious threat in this respect.