The Clintons’ Philosophy: We Walk the Ethics Line

Clinton Foundation management has handed an issue to Trump

Bill Clinton's ego has driven actions that had political disaster written all over them and are casting a cloud over Hillary Clinton's campaign, writes Walter Shapiro. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Bill Clinton's ego has driven actions that had political disaster written all over them and are casting a cloud over Hillary Clinton's campaign, writes Walter Shapiro. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 23, 2016 at 5:00am

On those rare like-a-stopped-watch occasions when Donald Trump is right about something, he ruins the moment with bombastic overstatement.

Monday morning, the supposedly newly disciplined GOP nominee issued a press release calling for the Clinton Foundation to be “shut down immediately.” But Trump accompanied that defensible position (similar to a Boston Globe editorial) with the over-the-top claim that “the Clinton Foundation is the most corrupt enterprise in political history.”

C’mon. Despite dubious donations from repressive Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and iffy entanglements with Ukrainian insiders, it is hard to argue that the Clinton Foundation was even “bigly” crooked — let alone history-making in its corruption.

As a New Yorker, Trump should be familiar with the boodling of Tammany Hall, especially since it partly involved real estate. And with Trump’s world-class memory, the name Richard Nixon might ring a bell. In fact, it is hard to top the corruption of Nixon’s plumbers, who broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and an office building called the Watergate.

The furor over the Clinton Foundation has all the hallmarks of a classic Clinton scandal — lots of smoke, lots of questions about conflict of interest, but also a murkiness about whether anything illegal actually occurred.

Like Hillary’s Wall Street speeches, the internal operations of the Clinton Foundation were always certain to complicate a 2016 presidential race. So why did the Clintons persist in a course of action that had political disaster written all over it?

The most obvious answer is Bill’s ego.

[Clinton Forgot It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-Up]

The former president has everything a statesman could want — except for a Nobel Prize. In the circles that Clinton travels in, a Peace Prize seems as much the coin of the realm as an elite black American Express card. Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore (Clinton’s own vice president) have all made Nobel Prize speeches in Oslo. Even Henry Kissinger (the architect of a war that Clinton dodged) has an award.

Clinton probably saw his foundation as paving the way toward a Nobel much as the Carter Center did for his one-term Democratic predecessor. (Carter won the Peace Prize the year after the Clinton Foundation was established). But for all his globe-girdling restlessness, Clinton never got the summons to Norway.

Caught up in their own righteousness, the Clintons inevitably delay too long in responding to scandal. That was Hillary’s dilatory approach to the home-brew email server that was supposedly just for convenience. And Bill has long seemed obtuse in refusing to recognize that the Clinton Foundation could not continue in its current form with his wife heading toward the White House.

Why did it take until after the Democratic convention for the 42nd president to announce that he would step down from the Clinton Foundation board if his wife became the 45th president? Why is the Clinton Foundation only now taking steps to prune its programs and eliminate foreign and corporate donations?

For all the attacks on Hillary, too often, she seems like a bit player in her husband’s ethical dramas. For example, the 1995-96 Clinton fundraising scandals flowed from an effort to raise unregulated money to pay for a TV ad campaign designed by the sleazy Dick Morris, whom Hillary always disliked.

[Clinton Should Come Clean on Her Relationships With Donors]

But Hillary helped host the Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers for favored campaign donors. And Johnny Chung, a Taiwanese-American wheeler-dealer, delivered a $50,000 campaign contribution to Hillary’s East Wing office.

Despite the president’s White House coffees with key contributors and the talk of auctioning off the Lincoln Bedroom, Bill Clinton avoided obvious Nixon-style favor trading. Instead, the president offered the illusion of access rather than tangible actions in exchange for lavish campaign contributions.

This was classic Clintonism — and it applies to Hillary as well as Bill. The idea is to straddle the ethics lines but pride oneself on not actually doing anything untoward. In this spirit, it appears that key donors to the Clinton Foundation got meetings at the State Department. But the favor appears to have been the meeting rather than a subsequent decision to benefit the donor.

In a sense, the ethical failures of Bill and Hillary are rooted in hubris. They believe they are smarter than almost anyone, so they are entitled to bend the rules in a way that mere mortals cannot. And since their hearts are pure, they can justify almost any action as a momentary detour on the road to utopia.

But too often this Clinton gamesmanship gives rise to a question that has been asked too often over the past quarter century about America’s Power Couple: “What were they thinking?” And that certainly applies to the way that the management of the Clinton Foundation has handed an issue to a floundering Donald Trump.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.