Hillary Clinton deflected questions about Clinton Foundation donations during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, pivoting away from questions about undue influence from brutal foreign governments by highlighting the organization’s charitable work.
“The Clinton Foundation made it possible for 11 million people around the world with HIV/AIDS to get treatment,” Clinton said, noting that this total accounts for about half of all people receiving such treatment.
The Clinton Foundation does a lot of good work. Its AIDS initiative, in particular, has done a great deal to atone for former President Bill Clinton’s efforts to suppress the availability of low-cost generic HIV treatments during his presidency. It also gets good marks from charity watchdogs that monitor how much of a nonprofit’s donations go to actual charitable activities, rather than internal spending on staff salaries and office space.
But the Clinton Foundation isn’t an ordinary charity. Both Hillary and Bill Clinton have been paid personally to give speeches by donors and networks that have also donated to the foundation. These separate payments to the Clintons’ personal accounts don’t count as salaries under the foundation’s structure.
Hillary Clinton has personally received hundreds of thousands of dollars to speak at Goldman Sachs, a firm that has also donated millions to the foundation. In 2015, The New York Times reported that Russian government interests seeking to secure control over American uranium mines made over $2 million in donations to the Clinton Foundation, and an investment bank with links to the Kremlin paid Bill Clinton $500,000 for a speech. This happened while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, one of many agencies that needed to sign off on the acquisition of U.S. uranium by the Russian-controlled entity. The Russians would eventually ink the deal, acquiring 20 percent of the unmined U.S. uranium stock.
These payments to the foundation, and other donations from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, may have been motivated by the pure-hearted desires of donors eager to see their dollars deployed in the most efficient humanitarian means possible. But there is a long tradition of anti-corruption thought in American politics which holds that when a donation creates the appearance of corruption, it’s a problem ― even if nobody can prove that a specific contribution led to a specific policy change.
This tradition was fully gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which defines corruption as an explicit quid pro quo exchange of cash for votes. Clinton has pledged to overturn this decision, even as, at times, she has embraced its logic to defend her career.
But the Clinton Foundation does at least do actual charitable things with its funds. The Trump Foundation, which has run into a series of legal problems of late, once spent $20,000 on a portrait of its namesake. Clinton didn’t neglect that fact on Wednesday night.
“I would be happy to compare what we do with the Trump Foundation, which took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald,” Clinton said. “I mean, who does that?”
The Trump Foundation, the Washington Post reported, has also paid penalties for spending money on political activities, which is illegal, incompetent and gross.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.