NEW YORK -- ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos will not moderate a Republican debate during the 2016 elections after it was revealed on Thursday that he gave $75,000 in donations to the Clinton Foundation.
The donations, which were sitting in plain view on the Clinton Foundation website, had gone unnoticed until the conservative Washington Free Beacon began asking questions Wednesday night. ABC News confirmed the donations to Politico Thursday morning.
"I won't moderate that debate," Stephanopoulos told Politico, in reference to the network’s February primary debate in New Hampshire. "I think I've shown that I can moderate debates fairly. That said, I know there have been questions made about moderating debates this year. I want to be sure I don't deprive moderators or viewers of a good debate."
Stephanopoulos' ties to the Clintons weren't exactly state secrets. He served as a top aide to former President Bill Clinton during Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and his first term in the White House. But Stephanopoulos carefully crafted a post-White House career as an objective newsman, joining ABC News in 1997 as a political analyst and rising to the top of the industry. He currently co-hosts “Good Morning America” and is the host of the Sunday public affairs show "This Week." Up until Thursday, he was the network’s most likely choice to moderate presidential primary debates.
The donations, however, complicated Stephanopoulos' 2016 role, re-surfacing Republicans' concerns that his pro-Clinton bias was latent rather than expunged. For the campaigns and the Republican National Committee, which already threatened to boycott networks that aired documentaries about Hillary Clinton, it prompted further complaints about mainstream media's coverage of the 2016 Republican primary.
Prior to Stephanopoulos’ annoucement Thursday, Kentucky Senator and Republican 2016 candidate Rand Paul told The New York Times that Stephanopoulos shouldn't be involved in those forums.
"It’s impossible to divorce yourself from that, even if you try," Paul told The Times. "I just think it’s really, really hard because he’s been there, so close to them, that there would be a conflict of interest if he tried to be a moderator of any sort."
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Paul campaign spokesman Sergio Gor said the candidate has "raised a red flag" in the past over Stephanopoulos' role at ABC News and his moderating network-sponsored presidential debates. Indeed, Paul suggested in 2013 that Stephanopoulos "colluded" with Democrats when moderating a Republican debate the previous year; the ABC anchor dismissed the charge.
"We have always believed that Stephanopoulos has a clear conflict of interest when it comes to objective reporting," Gor said. "He would be wise to recuse himself from political coverage with Hillary Clinton in the race."
"I was surprised he was in the mix even prior to this," said another Republican operative affiliated with a 2016 presidential campaign, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "It is just tough. He works for the Clintons. I’m not challenging his integrity. But there is a CYA [Cover Your Ass] element to it. Why would you put him in the debate setting?"
In a statement earlier on Thursday, Stephanopoulos defended the donations, saying his intention was to support the foundation’s work in global AIDS prevention and deforestation.
“I thought that my contributions were a matter of public record,” Stephanopoulos said, referring to their appearance on the foundation’s website. “However, in hindsight, I should have taken the extra step of personally disclosing my donations to my employer and to the viewers on air during the recent news stories about the Foundation. I apologize.”
By removing himself from Republican debates, Stephanopoulos saves his network criticism over impartiality when it hosts the Republican presidential candidates in February. And some campaigns were willing to leave the issue there. A spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declined to comment to HuffPost, citing Stephanopoulos' announcement.
But other conservatives weren't willing to let the matter die.
"If he's not objective enough to moderate a GOP debate, and shouldn't have given to CGI, then why he is covering 2016 at all?" Conn Carroll, communications director for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), tweeted.
Stephanopoulos' past interviews have already come under renewed scrutiny owing to his Clinton ties. His interview with conservative author Peter Schweizer last month, in particular, drew ire. In the interview about Schweizer's controversial book, which claimed conflicts of interest stemming from foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State and Bill Clinton’s lucrative paid speaking engagements, Stephanopoulos challenged Schweizer’s assertions, telling the author that ABC News "found no proof" Clinton gave preferential treatment to foundation donors while leading the State Department.
Conservative sites like NewsBusters and Breitbart News criticized the anchor’s handling of the interview. The latter, which argued that Stephanopoulos should have disclosed that he used to work for Bill Clinton, called him a “former Clinton aide” in its headline.
Jonathan Adler, writing two days later on The Washington Post's “Volokh Conspiracy" blog, took Stephanopoulos to task for his work history, arguing that Stephanopoulos should have disclosed his former employer when questioning Schweizer about the author's former employers and their impact on the reliability of Schweizer's reporting.
The disclosures Thursday now turn the spotlight on ABC News, which has watched from the sidelines for months as rival NBC News faced a barrage of negative stories resulting from the exaggerations of suspended anchor Brian Williams and the resulting network shake-up. So far, ABC News is backing up its star anchor and signaled in a statement that there will be no punitive action coming.
"As George has said, he made charitable donations to the Foundation to support a cause he cares about deeply and believed his contributions were a matter of public record," a network spokeswoman said. "He should have taken the extra step to notify us and our viewers during the recent news reports about the Foundation. He’s admitted to an honest mistake and apologized for that omission. We stand behind him."
Stephanopoulos did not respond to a request for comment and a spokeswoman did not make him available for an interview.
Outside the Clinton orbit, Democrats adopted a wait-and-see approach, content to let the episode play out without rendering judgement on Stephanopoulos' ability to moderate a debate. An aide to former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D), who is considered a likely challenger to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, declined to comment on the matter but said they weren't complaining, either.
Stephanopoulos has traversed these criticisms before, though not quite at this level of scrutiny. His role in the 2012 Republican presidential primary debates was criticized by conservative commentators who accused him of leaning on "gotcha" questions, like one about birth control. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who will be asking questions during CNN’s first Republican debate this fall, recently told HuffPost he won’t bring up contraceptives -- a reference to Stephanopoulos' infamous question.
During an episode of Fox News' "The Five" in late March, host Eric Bolling asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) if he thought it was "fair" for Stephanopoulos to moderate a debate "given his time with the Clintons as a spokesperson."
"I personally don't have a problem with George Stephanopoulos," Rubio replied. "I dealt with him in his past, he's always been professional but I'm well aware of his history in the past."
Two weeks later, Rubio announced his candidacy for president. The first interview he gave was to Stephanopoulos.
This story has been updated to include Stephanopoulos' withdrawal as moderator of the New Hampshire debate.