Clintonian drama and the perils of deja vu

    As I read the new stories about the Clinton Foundation, I’m reminded of what deputy marshal Tommy Lee Jones drawled when he saw the train wreckage in The Fugitive: “My my my. What a mess.”

    That film was released back in ’93, at the dawn of the Clinton era. Perfect. Because the new Clinton Foundation dispatches – in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on the Reuters wire – conjure a bad case of ’90s deja vu, a motley mashup of mood rings, Guess jeans, fax machines, Madonna doing “Vogue,” Seinfeld, Friends, Benetton, Eddie Bauer, and protracted Clintonian drama.

    And here we go again, with Hillary joining Seinfeld and Friends in rerun syndication, seemingly on an endless loop. The biggest risk she runs, in her nascent presidential campaign, is that Americans will catch an affliction that was common back in the late ’90s. It was widely known as Clinton Fatigue.

    The way it always works is, Clinton defenders try to dismiss all criticism as partisan trash. And, yes, some of it has been partisan trash – like the ’90s nutcase claims that Bill and Hillary had ordered murders and ran drugs out of an Arkansas airport. But just because allegations about the Clinton Foundation – concerning foreign donations and possible Clintonian conflicts of interest – have been made by a conservative journalist, that doesn’t mean the allegations are baseless.

    The mainstream media outlets have scutinized the material gathered by the conservative journalist, Peter Schweizer, built on it, and run the stuff that checked out. The Times‘ story says that Hillary’s State Department helped OK the sale of American uranium mines to a Russian firm that funnelled donations totaling $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation. The reporters discovered the money on their own: “Those contributions were not publicly dislosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identity all donors.”

    Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the Clinton Foundation took donations from some foreign governments during Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State – even though the Foundation had filed tax returns showing no such donations. Reuters says it discovered the donations. As a result, according to Reuters, the Foundation says it is now “refiling at least five annual tax returns” and “may audit other Clinton Foundation returns in case of other errors.”

    A few caveats: Nobody alleges that the Clintons have broken any laws. Nobody alleges that the Russian firm got the uranium mines because the firm gave money to the Clinton Foundation (indeed, the State Department was one of many agencies that had to OK the deal), and, in that Reuters story, the reporters say: “The unsettled numbers on the tax returns are not evidence of wrongdoing.”

    But a Washington Post story nails the broader issue, about the Clintons’ entangling tentacles: “The multiple avenues through which the Clintons and their causes have accepted financial support have provided a variety of ways for wealthy interests in the United States and abroad to build friendly relations with a potential future president. The flow of money also gives political opponents an opportunity to argue that Hillary Clinton would face potential conflicts of interest should she win the White House.”

    Exactly. The Clinton Foundation stories are political ammo for those who want to sow public doubt about Hillary – especially now, in this early phase when she leads all Republican rivals by double digits in the national polls. The goal is to get people to sigh, “Do we really want this kind of drama all over again?”

    In politics, perceptions count. She’s out there trying to connect with everyday Americans, but, meanwhile, here is ammo – not from partisan enemies, but from the Washington Post – that paints her as an elitist with ties to “wealthy interests in the United States and abroad.” And commentator Jonathan Chait, a reliably liberal voice in New York magazine, is dissing the Clintons as “disorganized and greedy,” running the Foundation as “their own privatized mini-state.”

    A Hillary campaign spokesman says that nobody “has ever produced a shred of evidence” proving that she took any action as Secretary of State to benefit any Foundation donor. True that. But it would be naive in the extreme to believe that the Foundation’s heavy hitters have ponied up big bucks without expecting anything in return. Isn’t that precisely the argument Democrats always make when they complain about the Koch brothers’ GOP largesse?

    I’ll close with more deja vu, another Clintonian entanglement. It happened in 2006, and I doubt you’ll remember it. A company in Dubai was working a deal with President Bush to manage port terminals in America. Hillary, as U.S. senator, was vocally opposed to the deal. Cue the drama. It turned out that while she was leading the charge against the company in Dubai, her husband was working behind the scenes to help the company in Dubai. Here’s what I blogged back then:

    “Bill, in his capacity as far-flung private citizen, took a phone call not long ago from some old pals of his – the rulers in Dubai – and offered them some help in managing all the damage control over the port deal. That’s not surprising, in a way, since Bill has given six-figure speeches in Dubai, and the rulers have given six figures to the Clinton presidential library…Bill proposed to Dubai that they hire a veteran damage control expert, Washington strategist Joe Lockhart – the ex-Clinton White House press secretary. The proposed deal apparently reached Lockhart via another longtime Friend of Bill, ex-environmental protection agency head Carol Browner – who works with another Friend of Bill, ex-secretary of state Madeleine Albright – whose lobbying firm represents Dubai Ports World.”

    Flashbacks to the ’90s and the ’00s…Are we having fun yet?

     

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