You can’t spend an hour watching your favorite news screen these days without being assaulted by a panel of Washington political spinners and my media colleagues battling, simultaneously and thus incomprehensibly, at top decibel and warp speed.
Most of the time they are babble-battling over whether the latest revelation is really as scandalous and downright awful as it appears to be. As in: the latest revelations that some of the Clinton Foundation’s big donors sought access to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and favorable decisions from her department. Some heads of state and prominent international figures got access to the secretary or her inner circle — but there has been no evidence that anyone got favorable action that was influenced in any way by the secretary or one of her minions.
So here’s the bottom line: Yes, it is every bit as tawdry as it appears to be — but apparently not illegal. In short, the latest Clinton Foundation revelations have shown yet again what is wrong with the way Washington really works. And that’s a hardcore truth Washington’s insiders, in rare bipartisan unity, would prefer not to see or hear.
There is no disputing that the Clinton Foundation, founded by former President Bill Clinton, has launched a number of laudatory programs around the world. But the fact that some of the foundation’s big donors seemed to think their foundation generosity could help them get access and maybe more created appearances of impropriety that are contrary to the spirit of good governance. The Obama administration had tried to establish rules that would prevent such appearances from occurring. Yet they did.
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Predictably, Republicans have had a political field day with revelations of emails disclosing repeated contacts between Secretary Clinton’s top advisor, Huma Abedin, and the Clinton Foundation. Indeed, for a time she was being paid by both the U.S. government and the foundation for work she was doing for each entity.
Of course, the Clintons should have made sure it did not happen. But unfortunately, avoiding unsavory appearances has never been a strong point with the Clintons. And, having put themselves in that position, the Clintons endured unending political assaults from Republicans, including presidential nominee Donald Trump. Democrats of course howl that’s unfair.
Time out! Just imagine what the Clintons and their political assault experts would be saying if they had discovered Vice President Dick Cheney and a Cheney Foundation had done precisely what the Clintons and their foundation did — no more, no less.
But Washington famously has convenient gaps in its capital memory bank. For example, consider something every Republican and Democratic chairman of a Senate or House committee or subcommittee does, week after week, in order to win their next election: They dial for dollars. Specifically, they telephone the lobbyists and top officials of the industries, labor unions or other special interests that are regulated by the senator’s or representative’s committee — and ask them for money. They ask for thousands of dollars in campaign funds. And the lobbyists and others realize they ought to cough up money just to guarantee that, at the very least, they will have access to the influential chairman. They see it as an investment that will eventually provide them a huge profit. And it does.
There is no law barring a Senate or House member from asking for funds from a special interest whose economic success depends upon favorable government actions by the member’s committee. Yet Republican members have found time to pause in their dialing for special interest dollars long enough to attack Clinton for having a conflict of interest.
That’s the rest of the story about the way Washington really works. But a rare Republican official has provided us with some much-needed, non-political expert perspective. Former President George W. Bush’s chief White House ethics lawyer, Richard W. Painter, wrote in a New York Times op-ed article Wednesday that Hillary Clinton’s critics “have yet to point to any provision of the federal statutes or ethics regulations that was violated by Secretary Clinton or her staff in their dealings with the foundation and its principals, agents and donors. Was there favoritism? Probably, yes. But laws were not broken. …”
“This kind of access is the most corrupting brand of favoritism and pervades the entire government. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, top ambassadorial posts routinely go to campaign contributors. Yet more campaign contributors hound these and other State Department employees for introductions abroad, preferred access and advancement of trade and other policy agendas. More often than not the State Department does their bidding.”
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Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.