After Donald Trump charged last week in Tampa that Hillary Clinton used the Clinton Foundation to sell access to herself as secretary of state, the crowd chanted, "Lock her up!'' The Clinton campaign simultaneously pushed back hard to news reports about interactions between the State Department and foundation staff and donors. The reality is somewhere between Trump's reckless charges and the Clinton camp's righteous indignation — but the intersections between the foundation, its donors and the State Department continue to raise legitimate questions about the Democratic nominee's judgment.
There is a steady drip of revelations about overlapping connections between the foundation and the State Department while Clinton was secretary of state that undermine the declaration before she took that job that there would be clear lines. State Department emails released to the conservative group Judicial Watch show there were often communications between the State Department and supporters and donors to the Clinton Foundation. Among the examples: Foundation donor and Slim-Fast billionaire S. Daniel Abraham apparently got a State Department meeting; a Clinton ally intervened on behalf of the crown prince of Bahrain for a meeting; and another foundation donor sought help for a British soccer player with a criminal record who wanted a visa.
Those communications don't necessarily add up to special treatment. The crown prince of Bahrain likely would have gotten a meeting anyway, the soccer player's request went nowhere, and U2's Bono got no help in trying to beam a concert to the International Space Station. As a State Department spokesman said last week, there was no ban on State Department officials besides Clinton interacting with the Clinton Foundation. But that also suggests the ethics rules Clinton agreed to before becoming secretary of state should have been stronger.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that 85 of 154 people not tied to government whom Clinton met with or had phone conversations scheduled with had given money to the Clinton Foundation. Those included Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and Estee Lauder executives. Clinton and her allies strongly criticized the report, noting it covered less than half of her tenure as secretary of state and did not take into account more than 1,700 meetings with world leaders. There is no smoking gun here that suggests anything illegal, and Trump's call for a special prosecutor is entirely without merit.
Yet, the newly disclosed emails and news reports of Clinton's interactions reflect the potential for conflicts of interest that fuel Trump's overheated rhetoric. They also reinforce the findings of opinion polls that show most voters don't trust Clinton or believe she is honest. To help counter that perception, the Clinton Foundation announced last week that former President Bill Clinton will resign from the board and that the foundation would stop accepting foreign and corporate donations. That is good as far as it goes, but as always with the Clintons there is an asterisk.
The Wall Street Journal reported that earlier this month friends of the foundation were told Chelsea Clinton also would stop fundraising for the organization. Yet last week, the foundation said Chelsea Clinton would remain on the foundation's board if her mother is elected president, and it was not clarified whether she would continue to raise money for it. That suggests the Clintons once again are trying to have it both ways. Chelsea Clinton and her family should make a clean break from the foundation if Hillary Clinton wins. These may be hard choices, but Hillary Clinton made a choice when she chose to run for president again rather than devote her time to the foundation that bears the family name — and the entire family should accept the consequences of that decision.
While Clinton critics have called for the foundation to be shut down if she wins the presidency, that would be short-sighted. The foundation and its affiliates perform exemplary work around the world in fighting AIDS and reducing poverty. It would be foolish and harmful to millions if that work abruptly stopped. The pragmatic solution to this ethical morass is to do what should have been done long ago: If Clinton wins the presidency, there should be a clean break between the family and the foundation. And that includes the daughter as well as the husband.