As a social anthropologist who studies influence elites, I am rigorously nonpartisan. (My Huff Post archive shows targets of every stripe.) But when supporters of Bernie Sanders question Hillary Clinton's substantial campaign donations from corporate interests and Wall Street, they have an undeniable point. Yet it's her byzantine family foundation that creates perhaps the most troubling black hole of accountability.
This lighthearted look at the Clintons' charitable excursions exemplifies a much larger pattern: the unaccountability of today's influence elites (see my book Unaccountable.) This music video focuses specifically on how Bill Clinton's post-presidential career complicates his wife's executive ambitions. He has been a frenetic philanthropist since leaving office, his foundation channeling huge donations from corporations and even foreign governments. These donations inevitably call into question how a new President Clinton could manage innumerable conflicts of interest. Indeed, they have raised questions at times about her impartiality as secretary of state. Serious stuff that I felt could use a little satirical treatment.
As I said before the video, the Clintons' penchant for boundary-pushing points to a broader trend: a cultural shift toward under-the-radar influencing that is legal but beyond the reach of traditional accountability.
Hillary Clinton has declared in the face of questioning about her family's doings that she knows she will be "subjected to all kinds of distractions and attacks and I'm ready for that." Much of the discussion centers on whether a clear quid pro quo exists. Did Clinton as secretary of state sway policy because of donations, some from foreign and corporate donors, to her husband's foundation? Might she be susceptible as president of the United States to the influence of donors to her family's philanthropic empire?
Hillary Clinton, like others, is armed with a powerful weapon: deniability. In fact, as I have shown for several years now, the modus operandi of modern premier elites is so effective--and widely utilized--precisely because it affords its practitioners deniability and is unlikely to reveal any "smoking gun."
The Clintons are not alone. Other former leaders of Western democracies, notably British Prime Minister Tony Blair and, in some respects, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, practice this M.O. Eager to remain "relevant," earn millions, and sometimes skirting disclosure standards in the process, this new breed of ex-statesmen leverages enormous prestige and exemplifies today's influence elites. (George W. Bush, who has taken up painting in his post-presidency, is somewhat of an outlier among his baby-boomer peers.) These high flyers soak up today's zeitgeist, which prizes boundary-breaking and "disruption." Their overlapping endeavors weave a thicket of unaccountability, enabling the kind of elaborate deal-making now in the headlines and--I cannot stress this enough--the ability to deny that there's any wrongdoing.
For leaders of the so-called free world, this M.O. is novel. When Gerald Ford retired, he joined corporate boards. Jimmy Carter is best known for his philanthropy and occasional forays into diplomacy. George H.W. Bush can be seen parachuting.
The playbook for today's influence elites consists of several boundary-blurring strategies, employed together. The first is crafting overlapping roles, typically both for oneself and one's small circle. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are especially adept at this. Since leaving office, in addition to establishing the Clinton Foundation and its nonprofit Global Initiative, Clinton has served as a paid adviser to a global private equity and consulting firm called Teneo (among other business ventures). (We'll get to Blair's doings in a moment.)
The second strategy is setting up and operating through a series of crisscrossing entities. Teneo, which formed in 2011, once billed itself on its website as "integrated counsel for a borderless world . . . focused on working exclusively with the CEOs and leaders of the world's largest companies, institutions and governments." (Tellingly, when I checked back on Teneo's site after the Clinton foundation story gained traction, the word "governments" was no longer featured on the home page.) Clinton's close aide and Teneo co-founder Douglas Band reportedly recruited foundation donors to be Teneo clients and vice versa. The lines between the two enterprises were fuzzy to the extent that, as the New York Times reported in 2013, "Some Clinton aides and foundation employees began to wonder where the foundation ended and Teneo began."
The third playbook strategy is celebrity branding and the enlisting of others by appealing to their desire to bask in the brand. The Clinton Global Initiative, founded in 2005, pioneered a new way of doing the business of philanthropy that appeared to dovetail with the needs of corporate and government donors, as well as Teneo. An annual meeting, with a five-figure entrance fee as part of the deal, has brought together the powerful to network and hash out global issues. The foundation has reportedly has raised $2 billion since its formation. In a 2013 piece called "Scandal at Clinton Inc.," the New Republic described what the various parties get out of the deal:
For corporations, attaching Clinton's brand to their social investments offered a major p.r. boost. As further incentive, they could hope for a kind word from Clinton the next time they landed in a sticky spot. "Coca-Cola or Dow or whoever would come to the president," explains a former White House colleague of Band's, "and say, 'We need your help on this.'".... There's an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners...the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity.
But that proximity is also a carefully calibrated one, tailor-made for deniability. And that brings us back to the second playbook strategy: the setting up and funding of different legal entities and enlisting friends and allies to do the same. When donations come one-step-removed, the recipient can plausibly deny responsibility or distance itself when it's expedient to do so. We saw that last year when the Washington Post reported more than a thousand undisclosed donors to a Clinton-affiliated charity in Canada, the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership. The Clinton foundation could conveniently argue that Canadian law protects the anonymity of donors to charities. The man behind this affiliated charity is Frank Giustra, the mining executive who sought and won U.S. government approval to sell a Canadian uranium producer to Russia while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. (The Clintons deny any special treatment for Giustra.)
Deniability is also built into the sprawling portfolio of Tony Blair. The plethora of entities he has created--legally distinct but fuzzy in other regards--provides clues to his enmeshed roles and ability to deny wrongdoing. What the Telegraph dubs "Blair Inc." features a wide array: there's been the African Governance Initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the Tony Blair Sports Foundation, and the initiative called Breaking the Climate Deadlock. There's Tony Blair Associates, which has advised the governments of Kuwait and Kazakhstan, among others. (Blair can be seen in a Kazakh promotional clip called "In the Stirrups of Time," which the New Republic calls a "dreary, neo-Stalinist propaganda video.") Adding to the Blair muddle: some of his "management companies" are organized as "liability partnership[s]," which means, so says the Telegraph, that Blair "does not have any legal obligation to publish accounts."
Some of Blair's overlapping roles are well known. Blair, on the very day he resigned from office in 2007, picked up the title of special envoy to the so-called Quartet on the Middle East, which is composed of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. But that was hardly the only role he would assume. He also advised insurance giant Zurich International and JPMorgan Chase, which earned him many millions of dollars. His JP Morgan Chase role has brought him intense scrutiny over visits to Libya, a few of them apparently paid for by Muammar Gaddafi. That's because at the time, JPMorgan Chase was trying to broker a deal between the Libyans and a Russian oligarch (a deal that eventually fell through). Blair has strongly insisted that he does not lobby on behalf of JPMorgan Chase. But as the maker of a documentary on Blair wrote in the Telegraph:
Was Mr Blair in Libya...to discuss Middle East peace with Gaddafi? Was he working on behalf of his Governance Initiative, which claims it "pioneers a new way of working with African countries"? Was he sounding out deals for JP Morgan Chase, as the well-placed Telegraph source insists? Or was he there on behalf of his own very lucrative money-making concern, Tony Blair Associates (TBA), whose professed objective is to provide "strategic advice" on "political and economic trends and government reform"? This confusion of motive and identity follows Mr Blair almost everywhere he goes[.]
At the very least, JPMorgan Chase can exploit the Blair brand. The company is paying Blair a seven-figure fee for it. As The National Interest notes, ". . . JPMorgan Chase apparently invoked his name during the negotiations" for the unsuccessful Libyan-Russian deal. Yet despite the myriad questions, Blair maintained this role for a solid eight years, at a time when the Middle East desperately needed strong, unimpeachable guidance.
Is shamelessness becoming the new normal? Just a little more than a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for heads of state to monetize their prestige and mix influence with money in the manner of Clinton and Blair--what Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper calls "Blair Disease."
Other recent leaders of Western democracies have also used their former positions to advantage, although in a more blatant manner than Clinton-Blair Inc. In 2005, Gerhard Schroeder, just months after pushing hard for a controversial German-Russian pipeline in his official capacity as German Chancellor, joined that very pipeline company months after leaving office. That pipeline is controlled by Russian energy giant Gazprom. His warm embrace of his Russian friends has apparently only deepened over time, with his successor Angela Merkel understandably furious as Schroeder has emerged as an apologist for Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Or take Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2012, the Telegraph reported that Sarkozy, who had just lost re-election as president of France, said that he was "bored" in retirement and was likely to take what one political analyst dubbed the "Anglo-Saxon" route to maintaining relevance, that is, set up a vast web of philanthropy and business in the style of Blair and Clinton. Less than a year later came reports that he was considering running a private equity fund for Qatar. This musing created a small firestorm and he apparently set it aside in an already rocky bid to return to public office: two weeks ago, he was indicted on campaign finance charges.
Sarkozy sparked headlines over just one possible role. And yet Hillary Clinton, with a thousand or so secret donors to Clinton philanthropies, frames any questions as a mere "distraction" she can handle. Whether or not that's the case, the Clinton enterprise is ready-made to combat trouble. The playbook's overlapping roles and entities, which ensure deniability, are eerily reminiscent of those employed by the influence elites I charted in 1990s eastern Europe who sought the spoils of unraveling states after communism. Celebrity branding, and people's eagerness to revel in it--a distinctly Western cast that has since become part of the foreground--discourages the public from asking questions.
Where does all this deniability leave us, the public? As I argue in Unaccountable, we are firmly entrenched in an age where violation of the public trust--what I call the "new corruption"--is at an all-time high. Trust in politicians and public officials is being undermined by the M.O. of Clinton/Blair and their ilk. And this at a time when trust in politicians overall is already seriously frayed.
Yet trust is crucial for a well-functioning democracy, and by exposing themselves to untold numbers of potential conflicts of interest, once and would-be presidents and former world leaders jeopardize that trust. No one should "distract" us from that.