Sirota and Glastris on the Clinton Foundation

This morning Amy Goodman hosted a discussion on Democracy Now! with the Washington Monthly’s Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris and International Business Times writer David Sirota about the controversy surrounding the Clinton Foundation. For some background, we’ve written about this story here, here and here. Sirota wrote about the appearance of a conflict of interest during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State in U.S. arms sales to governments that made donations to the Clinton Foundation. You can watch the whole discussion in two parts.

Glastris pointed out that the story raises two issues: (1) did foundation donors get special access and (2) did the special access get them anything? On the first, he points out that 1% of the Clinton Foundation’s 7000 donors had meetings/phone calls with the Secretary of State. Those who met/talked with her didn’t give to the foundation to get to know her – but gave to the foundation BECAUSE they know her. On the second question, he notes that we have now had two big investigations (AP and Judicial Watch) and in every instance we know of “the Secretary’s people made the right choice.”

On Sirota’s allegations that foreign governments (primarily in the Middle East) gave to the Clinton Foundation and subsequently got big arms sales from the U.S. government that were approved by the State Department, Glastris responded that these happened amidst tensions in the region over the Iran nuclear deal negotiations. Here is the NYT reporting on the time period Sirota addressed.*

Fortifying one of its key allies in the Persian Gulf, the Obama administration announced a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia on Thursday, saying it had agreed to sell F-15 fighter jets valued at nearly $30 billion to the Royal Saudi Air Force.

The agreement, and the administration’s parallel plans to press ahead with a nearly $11 billion arms deal for Iraq, despite rising political tensions there, is dramatic evidence of its determination to project American military influence in an oil-rich region shadowed by a threat from Iran.

Though the White House said the deal had not been accelerated to respond to threats by Iranian officials in recent days to shut off the Strait of Hormuz, its timing is laden with significance, as tensions with Iran have deepened and the United States has withdrawn its last soldiers from Iraq…

Though Mr. Shapiro and other officials said the planes were intended to help Saudi Arabia protect its sovereignty, military analysts said they would be effective against Iranian planes and ships anywhere in the Persian Gulf. They are part of a 10-year, $60 billion weapons package for Saudi Arabia that was approved last year by Congress.

As Glastris suggested, you are free to disagree with this strategy. But it is a fact, and puts to rest the idea that Clinton approved the arms sales because of contributions to a charitable foundation.

Sirota made another argument that we’re likely to hear more about as plans materialize for the Clintons to pull out of involvement with the foundation. He asks why it is necessary to do that as president but wasn’t when Hillary was Secretary of State. Glastris pointed to the memo of understanding that was developed between the Clintons and the Obama transition team in 2008 as the guide to how that would be handled in the administration. You can read that MOU here. It is interesting that Sirota seems to assume that a Secretary of State makes unilateral decisions about things like arms sales – which is part of why he doesn’t understand the difference between SoS and POTUS. Here is what Bill Clinton said about that:

As someone who has worked in nonprofits all my life and ran one myself for over 20 years, I find one argument Sirota made (that I’ve also heard elsewhere) to be absurd. He posits that the only reason repressive regimes like those in the Middle East would donate to the Clinton Foundation is to gain favor with the Secretary of State. The people making that argument seem to have no idea about the reality of philanthropy. Nonprofit leaders have been dealing with these kinds of challenges for a long time. There are often questions about the motives of wealthy donors. Most often they give – not to gain access or favors – but to present a public relations image they want to promote. Going with Sirota’s logic, an awful lot of charitable causes would be defunct because of assumptions about donors’ nefarious motives. Some socialists would see that as a positive step because they prefer that the government fund such causes (Bernie Sanders has made that argument). But living in the real world means struggling with the issue of sometimes murky motives on the part of donors. It will be interesting to see if this controversy sparks any real discussion about that or if, as Sirota suggested, we assume it is only an issue for the Clinton Foundation.

Personally, I want to align myself with something Glastris said at the end of this discussion when they addressed the very real possibility that the work of the Clinton Foundation will likely be hampered – at best – by the prospect of shutting it down and/or spinning off some of its programs to other organizations. He admitted that – while it might be necessary – he has a feeling of melancholy about what that means for a spectacularly successful organization that has helped millions of people around the globe.

* Due to an objection from Sirota about the use of an article from 2015, the link and quote have been replaced with one from 2011.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.