In The Name Of Optics, Beltway Press Renews Its War On The Clinton Foundation

This Sunday's New York Times front page delivered a curious pair of campaign bookends when the newspaper presented what it framed as problematic reports for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In the Trump dispatch, the Times detailed how the businesses run by the self-described billionaire are mired in at least $650 million of debt, and stressed "how much of Mr. Trump's business remains shrouded in mystery." For a candidate running on his supposed commerce wizardry, the report was highly damaging.

As for that day's Clinton campaign woes? According to the Times' front page, the troubles come in the form of the Clinton family's global charity: "Foundation Ties Bedevil Hillary Clinton's Presidential Campaign."

The newspaper was never able to explain how the issue was bedeviling or sidelining her campaign, considering her White House run boasts some of the largest summertime presidential leads in decades, but the Times was sure that "the funding of the sprawling philanthropy has become an Achilles' heel for her campaign."

Republicans have echoed the spin in recent days, and dialed it up to 11. Trump called for a special prosecutor to investigate the foundation's supposed criminal ways, and Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani suggested the charity be indicted as a "racketeering enterprise."

Is it possible a charity could emerge as bad news, or represent bad optics, for a presidential candidate? Certainly. For instance, if a politician is connected to a foundation that's been caught ripping people off, siphoning off contributions, or misleading donors about the work being done. But none of that applies to the uniquely transparent Clinton Foundation. (See here for helpful context that's usually overlooked in Beltway press coverage.)

The charity represents a thriving philanthropic operation that assists people around the world, while brandishing esteemed charitable credentials. It's a charity that's helped more than nine million people get lower-cost HIV/AIDS medicine, and a foundation that also tries to improve global health and fights against economic inequality, childhood obesity, and climate change.

And it's a charity that boasts an "A" rating (the frequent conservative refrain that the foundation spends 85 percent of its budget on "overhead" represents a lazy smear).

That's what the Times dubs Clinton's "Achilles' heel"? It's almost like someone posed a collective challenge to the press: Try to turn landmark charitable giving into a bad-news story for the Clintons.

How did we get to this absurd place -- to this absurd disconnect -- where the press depicts a wildly successful and transparent charity as some sort of ominous web of political deceit supposedly drenched in shadowy payments? And why do optics trump humanitarianism when it comes to the Clinton endeavors?

This truly does feel like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Keep in mind, when the Clintons left the White House in January 2001, they could have chosen virtually any path they wanted. But they didn't start a hedge fund, they don't speculate on real estate, and they're not charging $800 an hour as D.C. lawyers or lobbyists. They founded a charity. (And yes, they give speeches.)

The Clintons in recent days have taken steps to address what would be clear conflicts of interests with the foundation if she were elected president. The Clinton family announced the foundation would stop accepting money from foreign donors. Also, after the election the charity will seek out partners to absorb much of the foundation's work, leaving it dramatically smaller in size and scope.

Still, the media's latest hand-wringing foundation pile-on (i.e. shut it down!) represents a textbook example of the press joining forces with Republicans to push talking points about the Clintons and dubious 'scandals.' Eventually after much chasing and little success, the press usually retreats and presents the supposedly scandalous affair as bad optics, or complains that it raises troubling questions.

In the last two years, the Times and Washington Post have published more than 200 articles about the Clinton Foundation, according to Nexis. I'm guessing if there were any blockbuster revelations to be found, we'd know about them by now.

Like the endlessly monotonous email pursuit, the press long ago lost sight of what the actual Clinton Foundation wrongdoing was supposed to be. Last year, the overexcited headlines insisted foundation donors had influenced Clinton while she served as secretary of state, to the point where she altered U.S. policy to please fat cat supporters.

But that's never been proven to be true. Not even close. (Time has conceded, "The suggestion of outside influence over U.S. decision-making is based on little evidence.")

Those allegations of heavy-handed influence peddling and favor-granting have faded and now, at least this week, the supposed foundation 'scandal' revolves around how meetings at the State Department were scheduled by Clinton aides. Talk about a major downgrade.

Like clockwork, the press is treating as very big, and troubling, news the Associated Press report from Tuesday, which claims that of the non-government workers and foreign representatives Clinton met with or phoned with as secretary of state, 85 of them were Clinton donors. The implication being that if you gave to the foundation you were then granted special access to the State Department.

Even if the contact between donors produced no wrongdoing (and there's no suggestion it did), "it's the number" of meetings that is causing Clinton "some heartburn," according to CBS News.

But why? Clinton ran the State Department for approximately 1,400 days and during that time she met or phoned 85 people who have donated to the Clinton Foundation. Why is that supposed to be scandalous? The AP also omitted key context, such as how many of those donors gave to the foundation years before anyone knew Clinton would become secretary of state? And how many of those donors were also granted meetings with previous Republican administration secretaries of state?

We don't know. Instead, we're left with breathless reporting about how meetings were scheduled at the State Department. That's the controversy. Talk about the ultimate process story.

Yet incredibly, it's the Clintons' charity success that still warrants long-running, and often microscopic, coverage. It's the Clinton Foundation that raises 'troubling questions,' not the fact that Donald Trump lies about his charitable giving.

Note: If Hillary Clinton bragged about giving tens of millions of dollars to charities but only actually gave $10,000 of her own money, the way Trump apparently did, the outraged D.C. press corps would denounce her for days and all but demand she drop out of the race.

But the foreign funding!, cries the press. The possible conflicts of interest! It's all so uniquely Clinton-esque we're told.

But is it? As David Corn noted in Mother Jones last year:

Anyone who wanted to gain favor with the Bush clan while George W. Bush was president could have anonymously donated an unlimited amount of money to his father's foundation, and now that Jeb Bush is in the hunt, anyone looking to fashion a relationship with the Bushes can contribute millions to either of these Bush foundations and keep that connection a secret.

So yes, the Bush family foundations can receive millions from foreign donors. And the Bush family foundations don't reveal who the donors are. But it's the Clinton Foundation that's criticized in the press for disclosing all of its donors.

Trying make sense of that pretzel logic. You can't. It's simply the press demanding there be a separate, higher, and often hysterical standard for the Clintons.

Crossposted at Media Matters for America.