Did Companies & Countries Buy State Dept. Access by Donating to Clinton Foundation?
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Grimaldi of The Wall Street Journal, who has covered the Clinton Foundation for years, looks at the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state, and what it would be if she became president. Newly released State Department emails include exchanges between top members of the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s top State Department advisers, including Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills. The FBI reportedly wanted to investigate the Clinton Foundation earlier this year, but U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch pushed back.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Newly released State Department emails are raising questions about the close ties between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state. The 44 emails include exchanges between top members of the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s top State Department advisers, including Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills. CNN reports that the FBI wanted to investigate the Clinton Foundation earlier this year, but U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch pushed back. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau denied any improper communication between the Clinton State Department and the Clinton Foundation.
ELIZABETH TRUDEAU: The department’s actions under Secretary Clinton were taken to advance administration policy as set by the president and in the interests of American foreign policy. The State Department is not aware of any actions that were influenced by the Clinton Foundation.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the newly released email exchanges is about billionaire Nigerian-Lebanese developer Gilbert Chagoury, who contributed between $1 [million] and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation. The emails show a top Clinton Foundation executive writing to Abedin and Mills, asking for help putting Chagoury in touch with the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. Abedin responds, “I’ll talk to jeff,” referring to then-U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. On Wednesday, Gilbert Chagoury’s spokesman said Chagoury, quote, “was simply passing along his observations and insights about the dire political situation in Lebanon at the time,” unquote.
For more, we go to Santa Barbara, where we’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Grimaldi. He’s a senior writer at The Wall Street Journal and has covered the Clinton Foundation since 2014.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, James. You’ve been covering the Clinton Foundation for years. Can you talk about what this latest group of emails suggests, and how significant it is, about the relationship between the Clinton Foundation under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and—between the State Department under Clinton and the Clinton Foundation?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, I think this confirms what we sort of knew. There are obvious ties and relationships. The key tie here would be Douglas Band, who was a top aide to Bill Clinton. He helped Bill Clinton create the Clinton Foundation, and sort of devised how he would spend his days in retirement. He was very close, of course, to Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin. At one point he was employing, as a contractor, Huma Abedin, as Huma was working at the State Department. And during this time of the Lebanese elections, Mr. Band sent an email, as you described just now, regarding one of their greatest benefactors, Mr. Chagoury, and suggested that the State Department have the person who was a lead—the ambassador to Lebanon speak to Mr. Chagoury.
It shows how donations to the Clinton Foundation win access to, you know, state diplomatic—State Department diplomatic officials. It sort of begs the question, if he hadn’t given that money to the Clinton Foundation, whether he would have had that kind of easy access. I would say it would probably be unlikely. It certainly would not happen as swiftly. Possibly, that State Department ambassador might have consulted with this person regarding that issue, but it sure shows or seems to create an appearance of a conflict of interest, that perhaps he bought access by making those donations to the Clinton Foundation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, speaking of that issue of conflict of interest, you’ve noted that during her confirmation hearings as secretary of state, Secretary Clinton specifically said that she would take, quote, “extraordinary steps … to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.” How well do you think she has followed through on that, on that promise?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, over the past year, we have looked at that issue. And what I did was I went into the lobbying records to see which companies and other entities were lobbying the State Department, and also looking to see how many of them had given to the Clinton Foundation. And one of our findings was that at least 60 companies had lobbied the State Department, had given as much as $26 million, and many of those companies, 44 of those 60, had participated in what they call commitments, or philanthropic projects, that were valued by the Clinton Foundation at $3.2 billion.
So then we went to look and see if Mrs. Clinton had done anything for these companies at the time that they were making these gifts. And we looked at several companies—UBS, Boeing, General Electric and Microsoft and others, Wal-Mart—who seemed to have been getting favors from Mrs. Clinton, perhaps for good reason—promoting American companies and American jobs—but also coming at the same time that there were donations going to the Clinton Foundation.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote an extensive piece, James, last year about Clinton’s complicated connection with UBS. Can you talk about that, just as an example?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Right. That’s one of our deeper dives into one of the banks that was involved. And we know that Mrs. Clinton is very close to a lot of the Wall Street banks. In this case with UBS, they were in a bind. A whistleblower had come forward, an American who was helping UBS find Americans who wanted to dodge taxes in Switzerland, literally recruiting them to open accounts in Switzerland that would be then hidden from the Internal Revenue Service. He blew the whistle on that.
The government, IRS and DOJ, wanted 50,000 accounts that they knew about in which Americans were hiding taxes—hiding their income in the UBS Swiss bank accounts so they wouldn’t be taxed. In the end, UBS did not want to provide those names, because there was a law in Switzerland that said they couldn’t reveal that kind of confidential information. In the end, they only gave about 5,000 of those 50,000 names. And we saw the donations from UBS to the Clinton Foundation increase from a little under $60,000 to $600,000, plus they participated in a $30 million inner-city loan program and then hired Bill Clinton to do speeches around the country for $1.5 million.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Of course, UBS was not only closely tied with the Clintons. As I recall, Robert Wolf, the head of UBS Americas, was one of the big fundraisers for President Obama—in fact, famously was playing golf with President Obama when the Justice Department announced its deferred prosecution agreement with UBS on this issue of the accounts. So, there seems to have been a—you also raised the issue of whether other foreign policy objectives of the government were not included in the negotiated deal to eventually get Switzerland to give up at least some of those bank accounts?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Right. Well, that’s how Hillary Clinton got involved. And we know this, thankfully, to WikiLeaks. The cables that were obtained under WikiLeaks happened to be that snapshot in time when these discussions were going underway. And what we saw was that when the Swiss foreign minister came to Hillary Clinton and said, “We really would like to take care of this UBS problem,” Hillary said, “Well, we have a few things we would like, as well.” And this was the time that the Clinton administration—I’m sorry, the Obama administration was eager to close Guantánamo Bay. And Mrs. Clinton was pressuring Switzerland to take some of the less dangerous detainees, in particular, some Chinese Uyghurs who were deemed to be not particularly dangerous, which they eventually agreed to do. That seemed to be part of the overall deal that was made between the United States and Switzerland regarding UBS.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the evolution of the Clinton Foundation. I mean, not long before Hillary Clinton announced for president, didn’t they rename the Clinton Foundation the “Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation”?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Right. And she became very, very involved in the fundraising between the time that she left the State Department and when she announced her run for the presidency. She helped raise as much as $250 million from many of these same corporations in order to bulk up the endowment to keep the Clinton Foundation running in the future. In addition, she was giving a lot of speeches, as was Bill Clinton giving speeches, that were being paid, as, famously, we know Bernie Sanders brought up the fact that she was taking money from Wall Street and banks regarding speeches, up to $250,000 a pop. We may hear a little bit more about that today or in the coming days, because we understand that the Clinton campaign is getting ready to release their most latest tax returns. We already know some of this from her personal financial disclosure form, but we might see additional information coming out of her tax returns today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the public-private partnerships that Clinton established while she was secretary of state with some major corporations, and the relations of those corporations to the Clinton Foundation?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, exactly. You know, there’s usually never a stop in what you can do in terms of contributions you can make to the various Clinton pots. You know, you’ve got money that you can donate to the foundation. You can partner—at the State Department there are these partnerships between the Clinton Foundation and corporations. Some of that went into building an Expo in China for the Chinese world fair that they held there. And the Clinton Foundation—Mrs. Clinton, at the State Department, was very eager to see those being built, because, apparently, under the Bush administration, it really had kind of had a—reached a point where they hadn’t raised enough money to even have a pavilion there. But then you could see that there are money coming from corporations to their own personal wallet, their purses, campaign contributions. It just seems as if there are many, many places that you can make a contribution and you can partner with either Mrs. Clinton at the State Department or get involved at the Clinton Foundation.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of Hillary Clinton on CNN back in June. Anderson Cooper asked her about the lack of transparency of donations to the Clinton Foundation from foreign countries.
HILLARY CLINTON: We had absolutely overwhelming disclosure. Were there, you know, one or two instances that slipped through the cracks? Yes. But was the overwhelming amount of anything that anybody gave the foundation disclosed? Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: So there you have Hillary Clinton saying this. James Grimaldi, can you talk about what happened when President Obama tapped her to be secretary of state? And what were the rules around what would happen with the Clinton Foundation?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, let me also respond to the clip. I would say the disclosure is underwhelming. Yes, they have disclosed more than they’re required to under internal revenue law, but when they disclose it, they don’t tell you the date, they don’t tell you the amount. The disclosure is very skimpy. Someone could make a donation; the only way you know is if they’ve increased in one category, from, say, $1 [million] to $5 million, to $5 [million] to $10 million, and then there’s an asterisk that’s placed next to the name of a donor, that’s released either quarterly or annually. It’s very opaque, I think, in terms of what’s disclosed. Disclosure was required by the Obama administration when she came in, but they were very vague about what those rules would be. And I think they went to the least amount of effort that they could.
Also, for any fundraising that was to be done, they were supposed to consult with the ethics officers at the State Department. But so far, we’ve only found a handful of examples where they ever said no. And in those cases, they were really in sort of the extreme. Bill Clinton wanted to give a speech in North Korea. And I think there may have been some efforts where he wanted to raise some money in China, as well. So, we’ve obtained many of those disclosure requests. And, in fact, there have been some others that are still coming out through some of these emails. But like I said, it doesn’t look like the State Department pushed back very often.
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t there a rule? Didn’t they change—didn’t they change a rule around countries, that countries—the Clinton Foundation would not accept contributions from countries—
JAMES GRIMALDI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —during that time, but then that changed?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Right. So, what they—what they did was they said, “We really don’t want you raising money from foreign governments,” because she’s going to be, obviously, dealing with foreign governments. So they stopped doing that. And then, what we realized, when they did, they were very quiet. They didn’t announce it. They posted on their website the 2014—I guess, in 2015, for the previous year, we saw that, immediately, the Clintons had gone back to many of these Middle Eastern countries—the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others, Qatar—that would have raised some questions. So, in other words, in this interregnum in between when she was at the State Department and when she ran for—announced her run for president, they ended up going back to the very countries that some people had raised a lot of questions about. And there are many who have raised questions about raising money from these governments and many of these sheikhs in Saudi Arabia and others in countries that have very questionable human rights and certainly don’t have equal rights for women.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And to your knowledge, this issue of foreign governments donating to an American charitable philanthropy, is there any other philanthropy in the United States that has comparable donations from foreign governments as the Clinton Foundation?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, probably not at this scale. But I do know that there are certain government entities that make contributions, sort of like we do with USAID. I know that Switzerland, you know, will—has, I think, a lottery that donates. Canada—it was interesting, the Canadian State Department was making contributions, coming from the same agency that was lobbying the Clinton—I’m sorry, lobbying the State Department regarding the Keystone XL pipeline. Obviously, Canada wanted that pipeline to come through. It was eventually stopped. But there were donations from that same Canadian State Department that went to the Clinton Foundation around the time that—that’s is one that slipped through, in terms of a government donation, around the same time that they were lobbying Hillary Clinton to accept the Keystone XL pipeline.
AMY GOODMAN: How does Saudi Arabia fit into this picture, James?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Saudi Arabia, there are sheikhs and others who have made donations. They’re very big supporters, as is Abu Dhabi. Interesting, we had a story last year that talked about Abu Dhabi also donating around the time that their airline, their upstart airline, wanted to receive a U.S. Customs facility in their airport. It was like a very—frankly, not a very common route, and it was sort of a plum get for them to get this preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi for their airline.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you write that Bill Clinton received $1 million for two appearances sponsored by the Abu Dhabi government, the United Arab Emirates, that were arranged while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
JAMES GRIMALDI: That’s right. Those were—those came through agencies, the tourism agency, the tourism agency obviously being run by Abu Dhabi, but one of the also big sponsors or participants in that agency was the very airline that wanted this special facility, the preclearance facility, at their airport.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’ve also written about Clinton’s relationship to the Energy Pioneer Solutions. Could you talk about that company and what it was seeking?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Yeah, that’s a very interesting company. Energy Pioneer Solutions was founded by Scott Kleeb, who was a candidate for Congress in Nebraska. His wife happens—Jane Kleeb happens to be one of the big opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, so very well known in Nebraska. But interesting, this company, which weatherized homes and put in insulation, had as its co-owners the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Mark Weiner, a Rhode Island official very close to Bill and Hillary Clinton going back to the ’70s and to their ’92 campaign. He recently passed away during the Democratic National Convention, and Bill Clinton mentioned him in his speech at the convention. And Bill and Hillary both went to his funeral. He was a co-owner, as was a woman who lives about three miles from Bill and Hillary’s house in Chappaqua, New York. This company received a $2 million commitment that was arranged by the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. And Bill Clinton called the energy secretary, Steven Chu, in order to get them an $840,000 grant. That’s raised some questions about whether the Clinton Foundation is being used to sort of feather the nests of many of their friends.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a for-profit company.
JAMES GRIMALDI: It is a for-profit company. Very unusual for a for-profit company to get a federal grant from the Department of Energy. And the company isn’t doing too well. As I understand it, they’re reconfiguring their business plan. And it has not worked out, I think, as they had expected. But I think it may still be incorporated in Nebraska.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, a big issue that’s been raised is, you know, the relationship of the close advisers to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, Cheryl Mills, in particular, who goes back to being Bill Clinton’s attorney during—defending him during the impeachment hearings in Congress, then now the right-hand person of Hillary Clinton. And one of the issues raised in this email—in the emails is that she went to New York on her own dime, they are now saying, took a train up, to help choose the new head of the Clinton Foundation during her tenure as, you know, top State Department official. Any issues here with that, James?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, she’s at the center of everything involving Hillary Clinton at the State Department. She’s basically Hillary’s consigliere at the State Department. And she is the keeper of all the Clinton secrets. And she also would be the enforcer, at times, when Bill Clinton might have been pushing too hard for some of these questionable donations. But there’s no question she was sort of in the middle of every major decision that’s ever been made by the Clintons, a very, very close adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and very close to Hillary, and, in fact, had an official position in the State Department.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, could the Clinton Foundation exist as it is now if Hillary Clinton is president?
JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, Bill Clinton was asked that question. He hasn’t really answered it. He said he doesn’t want to count his chickens before they’re hatched. But I think all of the people around Bill Clinton, including people in the Clinton campaign, say there’s really no way it could continue to operate. And I think that Bill is pushing back on that, from what we understand, that he wants to continue to do some of the good work that they do—for example, helping to negotiate AIDS drugs in Africa at better prices. The Clinton Health Initiative, I think, really wants to continue to raise money. Many of these foreign donations are actually going to the Clinton Health Initiative—Health Access Initiative, as it’s known, or CHAI.
And so, I think there’s this—there’s a tension between the Clinton campaign for president and the Clinton Foundation about what exactly will happen. Those negotiations are well undercover. They’re not transparent. We don’t know what they are. We don’t know what will happen. And I don’t foreclose the possibility that the Clinton Foundation will continue to operate and that they will raise money from some of the same places. And I think that, really, these questions need to be asked of the Clinton campaign: If she plans—if she plans to continue—you know, whether Bill plans to continue to run the Clinton Foundation as it is, what form it will take, what it will look like and how it will raise money.
AMY GOODMAN: James Grimaldi, thanks for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—
JAMES GRIMALDI: Thanks for inviting me.
AMY GOODMAN: —senior writer at The Wall Street Journal, has covered the Clinton Foundation for a number of years. This is Democracy Now! We’ll link to his articles at democracynow.org.