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The Hillary Clinton "scandal” involving Morocco, explained

What we should — and shouldn’t — take from the new Clinton Foundation revelation disclosed by WikiLeaks.

Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton at a foundation event. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton found herself in a no-win dilemma as she moved to launch her presidential run while also aiding her husband’s globe-trotting philanthropy — and her team knew it.

Sometime before announcing her candidacy, Clinton had agreed to go to a Clinton Global Initiative fundraiser in Morocco planned for May 2015. The king of Morocco had personally pledged to give $12 million with the understanding she’d attend, according to emails released last week by WikiLeaks.

But then there was the awkward fact that Clinton would be running for president by then. That set up a bind: Go to the event, and Clinton would be appearing to indulge a foreign government known for egregious human right abuses to help her family’s private charity. Pull out, and Clinton would be going back on her word to the Moroccan king.

“The King has personally committed approx $12 million both for the endowment and to support the meeting. It will break a lot of china to back out now when we had so many opportunities to do it in the past few months,” Clinton aide Huma Abedin wrote in an email in November 2014, several months before Clinton declared her candidacy. “She created this mess.”

Hillary Clinton ultimately decided against attending, and Chelsea Clinton and Bill Clinton went instead. (Politico has reported a Moroccan phosphate export firm gave “at least” $1 million, but it’s not clear if the other $11 million came through. The foundation doesn’t have to disclose the gift and has declined to confirm one way or another to reporters.)

But since this story broke late last week, Clinton has been getting attacked for it far and wide. And this time it’s not just Donald Trump and Fox News: Even mainstream outlets like the Atlantic and the Associated Press have published tough pieces about the controversy. (The Huffington Post said it amounted to a “brutal, clean hit” on the Democratic nominee.)

This controversy has stoked wildly misleading allegations implying that Clinton is corrupt, even in some leading news outlets. But while those claims are overblown, the story still illustrates how the foundation helped put wealthy donors into Clinton’s orbit — and allowed them to buy a rare chance to shape her perspective that few average Americans will ever get.

The fake scandal in the Morocco story

One argument emerging from the Morocco story is that it somehow confirms that Clinton traded government favors for her own personal enrichment. That is the impression you would get from an array of sources taking that claim as either a proven fact or a credible allegation:

Let’s be clear: This is laughable and should not be taken seriously.

The most obvious problem with it is that money from the Clinton Foundation never went into Hillary or Bill Clinton’s private bank accounts. As PolitiFact has pointed out, neither Clinton draws any form of personal financial compensation from their work with the foundation. It’s pretty amazing just how many stories in which Trump has alleged otherwise don’t bother to point out what seems to be a pretty vital fact.

The second big problem with the claim that Clinton traded government favors for personal enrichment is that she was not secretary of state at the time of the scheduled gala in Morocco. (The gala was planned for May 2015 — more than two years after Clinton left the State Department.) Trump has alleged a “pay-to-play” scheme in which Clinton transactionally rewards foundation donors with government favors, but she was not actually in a position of authority at the time of the donation. True, she was widely expected to run for president soon, but it was certainly far from a guarantee that she’d win.

Clearing up the confusion around the Clinton Foundation accusations

But, fine, let’s say for the sake of argument that because the Clinton Foundation was a private charity, its gifts can be said to accrue to the Clintons’ personal benefit. Even then, the worst we have evidence of is her reciprocating by agreeing to meet with the foreign leaders or donors.

Now, there is reason to believe that the very act of getting to spend time with Clinton really does amount to trading on her public role. (More on why in a second.) But however bad that is or isn’t, meeting with someone is certainly nowhere close to the same thing as agreeing to do their bidding to influence US government policy in their favor. And while the distinction between those two may seem pretty obvious and important, it’s routinely being obscured even in mainstream press accounts of the controversy.

Here, for instance, is the Atlantic’s Russell Berman writing about the Morocco emails:

The chief complaint that critics make about the Clinton Foundation is that the former and perhaps future presidents engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme, whereby donors—many of them foreign governments—would contribute money to the charity in exchange for access to Bill or Hillary Clinton, or worse, beneficial treatment from the State Department.

On Thursday, hacked emails from WikiLeaks suggest that is precisely what happened…

Let’s unpack this. Berman writes, correctly, that Clinton has sometimes been accused of 1) giving foundation donors better access, and 2) granting them more favorable government policy.

Without distinguishing, he then says the WikiLeaks emails “suggest that is precisely what happened.” But these are two very different claims! And the WikiLeaks emails only provide evidence for one of them. (Berman does go on to recognize that we have no proof Morocco “gained any official concessions” from Clinton’s State Department, which is quite the understatement.)

We do not have any reason to believe that Clinton gave foreign governments “beneficial treatment from the State Department” because of their donations. We do know that Clinton, still months from announcing her presidential bid, said she would go to an event with another head of state to raise money that was all for a charitable cause. And then, still fearing what that would look like, she canceled the meeting anyway.

The Clinton Foundation story we should be upset about

Aude Guerrucci/Pool/Getty Images

But while this controversy doesn’t show that Clinton is a corrupt puppet of the Moroccan government, it should still be alarming for what it tells us about the woman on track to become the next American president.

As four campaign finance experts explained to me in September, the problem with the Clinton Foundation is not that its donors will get to set White House policy if Clinton is elected. It’s that by creating a system that allows those with seven-figure checks to buy access to speak with her, Clinton has been immersed in the viewpoints and priorities of a financial elite whose top concerns are divorced from those of the public.

This is not necessarily done out of sinister intent, and it does not mean that Clinton and her team are cynically or even self-consciously allowing the rich to influence their thinking in exchange for campaign or charity donations. As Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, told me in an interview about the foundation:

This risks creating an environment through which you think through problems, make decisions, and seek information when you’re trying to analyze complex situations. It takes a big effort to get beyond that.

Clinton might think, "These people are interesting, and they’re doing great work, and they’re helpful to me and my husband." That’s just human nature. But the basic, core problem here is that you’re creating a geography for your thinking that’s definitionally narrow — and based partly on who has money.

In other words, you don’t have to think of Clinton as a bad person to think her foundation’s donors may have successfully purchased a chance to mold her worldview. (The Clinton campaign has denied Vox’s request to talk about the WikiLeaks emails, and the candidate refused to answer questions about the Morocco donation aboard a campaign plane Sunday night.)

Abedin’s email does confirm for the first time — as scores of emails had already strongly suggested — that those who gave to the foundation sometimes did so in exchange for an audience with Clinton. (You can say that Clinton was a private citizen at this point, and that’s true. But it’s hard to believe the Moroccan government wasn’t giving in hopes of currying favor with someone already expected to win the presidency.)

This is a problem for Clinton that extends well beyond the foundation. She spent much of her summer on the campaign trail fundraising with some of the wealthiest people in America. (“Where has Hillary Clinton been? Ask the Ultrarich,” wrote the New York Times, citing a two-week spree in which Clinton raised $50 million with 22 events.) Other WikiLeaks emails have made clear that her team was in close contact with superdonors even when crafting and considering policy. You have certainly heard about the time she spent talking to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financiers in exchange for massive speaking fees.

Of course, it’s a little rich for Republicans to now be outraged over a presidential candidate spending too much time with only the wealthy. Donald Trump is a billionaire notorious for partying it up with the rich and famous and will be extraordinarily attuned to their pet issues. (Note, for instance, that his tax plan is absurdly favorable to the top 1 percent of Americans.) The failed field of Republican presidential candidates practically begged for the blessing of billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, with most of the leading candidates spending hours calling him on the phone and visiting him in Nevada.

And it’s not just the GOP. If you’re a big Barack Obama fan, you’d have to find him guilty of more or less the same offense as Clinton if you find her decisions here objectionable. Obama has already hosted private White House dinners for every family that has donated more than $100,000 to his personal charity. And that’s while he’s still been in office!

But just because Clinton is practicing politics as usual doesn’t mean we have to celebrate doing so.

This is the most generous interpretation of why the Clinton Foundation — in spite of all its genuinely lifesaving work, chronicled by my colleague Dylan Matthews — is still a source of concern. Opening your ears to the rich and powerful isn’t the same as consenting to do their bidding. But doing so can have crucial implications for structuring how you think, whom you turn to for advice, and, ultimately, what you decide to do. And that really does elevate the interest of wealthy donors — yes, including the Moroccan government — over those of the average American citizen.

It can even make you a little out of touch. And if you don’t believe me about that, you can ask Clinton herself.