How the Press is Making the Clinton Foundation into the New Benghazi

Over the last two weeks, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has taken a hit in the polls, much of it pretty clearly due to aggressive press investigations involving her relationship with the Clinton Foundation when she was Secretary of State. Even Hillary fans should see that these investigations are warranted. After all, Clinton is running for the most powerful office in the world. While she was Secretary of State, her husband was overseeing a $2 billion a year charity. That charity took in donations from foreign governments and individuals with international interests. These facts raise legitimate questions. Did donors to the Foundation get special access to the secretary and the department as a result of their donations? If they did get special access, did they receive any favors? Did Hillary or her staff do anything illegal, unethical, or contrary to U.S. interests or administration policy?

The good news is that as a result of these investigations we can now answer those questions pretty definitively: no, no, and no. The bad news is that the press doesn’t seem to want to take “no” for an answer, even if the answer is based on the evidence of its own reporting.

Consider the story in today’s New York Times by Eric Lichtblau based on a new batch of emails released by the conservative group Judicial Watch as part of its lawsuit. The emails show that Doug Band, then with an arm of the Clinton Foundation, asked Huma Abedin, a top aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to help him procure special diplomatic passports for himself and two other Clinton Foundation staffers. Band also asked for a private meeting between Secretary Clinton and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris, a Clinton Foundation donor. These emails, writes Lichtblau, raise “new questions about whether people tied to the Clinton Foundation received special access at the department.”

The reporting in the piece itself, however, doesn’t so much raise new questions as answer old ones. As Lichtblau explains, Band wanted the diplomatic passports because he and his colleagues were about to accompany Bill Clinton on an emergency mission to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists (as a former president, Clinton already had such a passport). In the end, State didn’t issue special passports to the Foundation staffers, despite the risks they were taking, because doing so would have been contrary to Department rules. Liveris did get a short meeting with Mrs. Clinton for a perfectly valid reason: he had offered to let Mr. Clinton use his private plane to fly to Pyongyang.

Other stories on the Clinton Foundation over the last two weeks fit the same basic pattern: the facts dug up by the investigation disprove the apparent thesis of the investigation. Last week, for instance, the Associated Press shook up the political world with an enterprising investigation showing that more than half of the 154 private sector individuals Secretary Clinton met or talked with during her first two years at State had donated to the Clinton Foundation, ether directly or though their companies or groups. That “extraordinary proportion,” said the AP, indicates “her possible ethics challenges if elected president.”

But aside from the AP’s questionable math—the 154 meetings were gleaned from Clinton’s calendar, and no one seriously doubts that over two years she met with far more private sector individuals than that—the story’s own reporting undermined the case that anything unethical occurred. As its main example, the story cites meetings with and calls on behalf of Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunis, whose Grameen Bank had contributed to the Foundation. Yet Yunis is not some shady financier who gave money to the Foundation to gain access to the secretary. He’s a Nobel Prize-winning pioneer of “micro-lending” to the world’s poor whom Clinton has known and worked with for 30 years. And the calls she made in support of Yunis were part of an international effort to keep the Bangladeshi government from forcing the beloved humanitarian out of Grameen on trumped-up charges. Other examples in the piece of donors getting “access” are similarly benign (one of them was the Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel).

The same passive-aggressive quality pervades all the recent stories about the Clinton Foundation. There is the big LA Times investigation about how Doug Band tried to get a State Department meeting for a donor, a Nigerian-based Lebanese billionaire. Though possibly sketchy, the billionaire had on-the-ground knowledge of the political machinations in Beirut, so was probably worth talking to, but in any event the meeting never occurred. There is Politico’s deep dive into the hitherto untold story about how the federal government made payments to the Clinton Foundation for IT equipment and staff.   While strongly suggesting that the payments were highly questionable, the authors concede that their investigation “does not reveal anything illegal.” Indeed, the payments were from a program Congress created more than half a century ago specifically to fund the work of ex-presidents, money every ex-president has taken advantage of, and the piece offers ample evidence from documents obtained from the General Services Administration that the GSA’s bureaucrats and the Foundation’s staff carefully followed the rules.

Thanks to the publishing of these investigations—most of which took many months of dogged effort to produce—we now have a tremendous amount of granular information about the Clinton Foundation’s relationship with the State Department and with the federal government generally. In virtually every case we know of, it’s clear that Hillary and her staff behaved appropriately.

Yet instead of accepting the evidence of their own investigations, much of the mainstream media expresses the attitude that these are still wide open questions. In its recent lead editorial calling for the Clintons to cut their ties to the Foundation immediately (the Clintons have said they’ll do so if she wins), The New York Times concedes that the latest batch of emails does not “so far” show that Hillary gave any special favors to Clinton donors while at state. On the cable shows, even the few journalists who acknowledge the lack of any evidence that Hillary and her staff did anything untoward feel the need to insist that the next batch of emails could prove otherwise.

And of course in theory it could. But as Nancy LeTourneau has observed, there is phrase for those who insist on keeping a controversy going long after enough facts are in to draw reasonable conclusions: “Merchants of Doubt.” The label comes from the book about a loose group of scientists who helped corporate and conservative political interests sow doubt in the public’s mind regarding the certainty of the science linking tobacco to lung cancer and fossil fuels to global warming. It’s the same strategy creationists use when they lobby school boards about gaps in the fossil record and how it’s important and fair-minded to “teach the controversy” about evolution.

Another way of looking at it is that the press is beginning to treat the Clinton Foundation story the way the Republican still treat Benghazi. The legitimate questions surrounding that incident—What were the precipitating events that lead to the deaths of four diplomats? What might the federal government have done differently to prevent it?—were basically answered when the first after-action press investigations and the 2012 Accountability Review Board Report were published. Keeping the controversy alive with half a dozen more congressional investigations was just a way for Republicans to rough up Clinton.

The GOP at least had an obvious political motive for refusing to admit the obvious on Benghazi. Why the mainstream press is refusing to concede the facts of its own investigations on Hillary and the Clinton Foundation is not so clear. But unless it stops that behavior and starts speaking honestly, and soon, there’s a very real chance it could throw the election to Donald Trump.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.