The Associated Press is reporting that “more than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money - either personally or through companies or groups - to the Clinton Foundation” and scandalizing the information as “an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.” That report is currently rocketing through the media.
This level of media hysteria would make sense if favors were being granted to individuals because they were donors. But that speculation falls apart when the story gets down to specific cases, because many Clinton Foundation donors are internationally prominent figures in the business or non-profit worlds – the very sort of people one would expect to be meeting with a secretary of state in any administration.
According to the AP’s review of State Department calendars released to the organization so far, covering roughly half of Clinton’s tenure at State, “[a]t least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs.”
So who are these Clinton Foundation donors that the AP notes met with Clinton? Famed Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus is one, and eleven paragraphs of the AP story detail meetings and interactions between the internationally known figure and Clinton and her staff over assistance he sought that was first reported last October.
Yes, Yunus-controlled organizations have donated between $125,000 and $300,000 to the Clinton Foundation, mostly as annual fees to attend Clinton Global Initiative meetings. But it’s completely absurd to suggest that “Clinton Foundation donor” is a major part of Yunus’ identity, or the reason why he might command attention from the secretary of state.
As the AP notes, Yunus “won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering low-interest ‘microcredit’ for poor business owners.” He is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is incredibly well-credentialed and almost universally celebrated. According to the Financial Times, beginning in 2007, tensions began between Yunus and Bangladesh’s government when Yunus “suggested he might establish his own political party to clean up Bangladesh’s public life.” Yunus was ultimately forced out of his managing director position at Grameen Bank in 2011 just months after the prime minister publicly denigrated microlenders as “bloodsuckers of the poor.” During that period, Clinton repeatedly received requests for help from Yunus, spoke with him on the phone, and after he was ousted met with him and publicly urged the government to halt their efforts to “seize control of Grameen Bank's effort to find new leaders.”
And this wasn’t Clinton’s first encounter with Yunus - the Clintons have ties to the economist that go back decades before the foundation even existed. They brought Yunus to Arkansas in 1983 to learn more about how microfinance could be used in the state, and Bill Clinton talked about his work during his 1992 presidential campaign.
Politico’s Blake Hounshell pointed out the oddity of portraying Yunus as a “Clinton crony” rather than a victim deserving of Clinton’s aid:
In addition to Yunus, here are the other people who met with Clinton detailed in the report:
- S. Daniel Abraham, the “billionaire behind the Slim-Fast diet and founder of the Center for Middle East Peace.”
- Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone Group, one of the largest private equity companies in the world, with a massive charitable giving arm to match.
- Nancy Mahon “of the MAC AIDS, the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder,” whom the AP suggests met with Clinton to discuss “a State Department partnership to raise money to finance AIDS education and prevention.”
- Estee Lauder CEO Fabrizio Freda, whose “company made a commitment to CGI in 2013 with four other organizations to help survivors of sexual slavery in Cambodia.”
All are Clinton Foundation donors or work for organizations that have donated to the Clinton Foundation. But they are also exactly the sort of people you would expect to meet with any secretary of state. The suggestion of malfeasance only makes sense if you ignore any reason Clinton could have to meet with these individuals other than their status as donors to an international charity.