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The fight over George Stephanopoulos giving $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation, explained

George Stephanopoulos.
George Stephanopoulos.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. George Stephanopoulos of ABC donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation between 2012 and 2014, according to a report by Politico's Dylan Byers.
  2. Stephanopoulos has covered Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and various controversies over the Clinton Foundation on air without disclosing those donations.
  3. In a statement, Stephanopoulos said that the donations were for "global AIDS prevention and deforestation, causes I care about deeply," but apologized for not previously disclosing them. ABC News is also standing by Stephanopoulos, Byers says.
  4. Stephanopoulos has a long and complicated history with the Clintons that includes working in the Clinton White House, but subsequently writing a tell-all book that infuriated the administration.

How Stephanopoulos went from a Democratic aide to a news anchor

George Stephanopoulos has an odd career track for a news anchor on a mainstream network — because he started his career in the world of Democratic politics. Working as an aide in the House of Representatives and on campaigns, he had a meteoric rise. He became Bill Clinton's first White House communications director at the age of 31.

But after Clinton's first term, Stephanopoulos left the White House, where he had fallen into disfavor (in part because the Clintons thought him a source of leaks to the media) and began to build a new career for himself, as a media commentator. He was soon hired by ABC News — and at first he was viewed as a reliably liberal, pro-Clinton voice.

But after the Monica Lewinsky scandal arose, Stephanopoulos was notably reluctant to stick up for Clinton on the air. "I couldn't bring myself to say I believed him," Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir All Too Human. "I couldn't buy the party line." Eventually, he heard from old colleagues that "as far as Clinton was concerned, I was now a nonperson — my name was not to be mentioned in his presence." He continues: "I was the enemy now."

Indeed, his autobiography ends with a brutal line where Stephanopoulos wonders "what might have been — if only this good president had been a better man." That 1999 book, which reveals numerous behind-the-scenes interactions from the White House, only infuriated the Clintons further.

The controversy helped establish Stephanopoulos as a more nonpartisan voice. And when the network concluded that a lot of people really liked looking at and listening to him, he was elevated to higher and higher positions. He moved from a commentator to the host of ABC's Sunday morning show This Week in 2002, became a co-anchor of Good Morning America in 2009, and finally rose to chief anchor at ABC News in 2014.

Overall, Stephanopoulos has completed a transition from partisan politics to a high-level mainstream news job that hardly anyone else has managed. Bill Moyers is probably the closest comparison, but Stephanopoulos is viewed as less ideological, and his influence, through Good Morning America, has been more mainstream.

His donations to the Clinton Foundation, however, might imperil his hard-won reputation for fairness.

If Donald Trump can donate to the Clinton Foundation, why can't Stephanopoulos?

The argument in Stephanopoulos's defense here is that the Clinton Foundation is a charity, so donations to it shouldn't be interpreted as partisan. As Stephanopoulos said in his statement, his contributions related to "AIDS prevention and deforestation." Also, the argument goes, if conservatives like Donald Trump have donated money to the foundation, how could donations be interpreted as partisan?

On the disclosure question, anonymous sources told Byers that Stephanopoulos "gives to dozens of charities every year, and that the total sum of these annual contributions is in the millions of dollars." The implication is that these donations, being a small part of his overall giving, slipped through the cracks.

Still, mainstream reporters were, overall, quite disapproving when the news broke:

Their argument, and the argument of many conservative critics, is that, like it or not, the Clinton Foundation is an operation that attempted to bolster the political fortunes of the Democratic presidential frontrunner — and that nonpartisan journalists should avoid being seen as supporting such an organization, even if it's for a good cause. "It's like he thinks the Clinton Foundation is the only outlet doing charitable work overseas," Reid Epstein of the Wall Street Journal tweeted.

Furthermore, various controversies over the foundation have been important news stories this year. "It's not just that he donated money, Stephanopoulos concluded on air that ABC News found no impropriety with foundation financials," tweeted Stephen Miller. And in covering author Peter Schweizer's book Clinton Cash, which alleges improprieties with the foundation, Stephanopoulos quizzed Schweizer on his ties to the GOP.

Now many conservatives are even calling for Stephanopoulos to step away from 2016 coverage altogether. Check out this tweet from Conn Carroll, the communications director for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT):

On Thursday afternoon, Stephanopoulos told Dylan Byers that he wouldn't recuse himself from covering the campaign, but that he also wouldn't be the moderator of ABC's Republican presidential primary debate next year.

Overall, the real lasting effect of Stephanopoulos’s donations may be that they give conservatives more leverage to push him if they feel his coverage of Republicans isn’t sufficiently positive. He'll have to be on his best behavior now — and may have to work hard to prove his independence from the Clintons again, as he did back in the '90s.

Read more: Why Hillary Clinton's foundation problem isn't going away