Media are rushing to promote a new email dump from the conservative group Judicial Watch that they suggest, in the words of The New York Times, shows that the Clinton Foundation “worked to reward its donors with access and influence at the State Department” under Hillary Clinton. But a closer look at the Judicial Watch emails suggests there is far less to the story than it appears and brings into question the conclusions the Times and other outlets have inferred from the newly released emails. Indeed, the very details that undermine those conclusions are frequently included in the reports themselves.
Judicial Watch’s press release framed the emails as showing “Clinton Foundation Donor Demands on State Department,” and focused on two email exchanges in particular:
The new documents reveal that in April 2009 controversial Clinton Foundation official Doug Band pushed for a job for an associate. In the email Band tells Hillary Clinton’s former aides at the State Department Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin that it is “important to take care of [Redacted]. Band is reassured by Abedin that “Personnel has been sending him options.” Band was co-founder of Teneo Strategy with Bill Clinton and a top official of the Clinton Foundation, including its Clinton Global Initiative.
Included in the new document production is a 2009 email in which Band, directs Abedin and Mills to put Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire and Clinton Foundation donor Gilbert Chagoury in touch with the State Department’s “substance person” on Lebanon. Band notes that Chagoury is “key guy there [Lebanon] and to us,” and insists that Abedin call Amb. Jeffrey Feltman to connect him to Chagoury.
Media outlets across the spectrum immediately ran with the story, speculating the emails may, as the Times put it, raise “questions about whether [the Clinton Foundation] worked to reward its donors with access and influence at the State Department.” The Wall Street Journal ran the headline “Newly Released Emails Highlight Clinton Foundation’s Ties to State Department.” A CNN.com article stated, “Newly released Clinton emails shed light on relationship between State Dept. and Clinton Foundation.”
On New Day, CNN’s Brianna Keilar called the Times’ allegations “unseemly at best,” suggesting the emails may have been inappropriate. Co-host Chris Cuomo said the Times’ report “show[s] pretty clear overlapping between what was going on at the Clinton Global Initiative and what was going on with Secretary Clinton.”
Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, called the emails “fairly significant” and said they show at least “one example of the Clinton Foundation getting probably millions of dollars … and then having the foundation pick up the phone and say ‘help our donor over here.’”
Co-host of Fox News’ Fox & Friends Steve Doocy said, “when you look at these particular email that you have released, it's pretty clear, if you want access to the State Department officials, big top government people, or even jobs, just give the Clinton family foundation a lot of money.”
These accounts adopt Judicial Watch’s frame that Band, acting as an agent of the Clinton Foundation on behalf of Clinton Foundation donors, was wielding influence in the State Department. But Band was also a personal aide to President Clinton during this time period, and, as the Times noted, the Clinton campaign says he was acting in that capacity in these emails, which they say do not “involve the secretary or relate to the foundation’s work.” A fact sheet distributed to surrogates by the Clinton campaign and obtained by Media Matters states that Band sent the emails “on behalf of President Clinton from his presidentclinton.org email, not on behalf of the Foundation.”
Moreover, neither the emails nor the news reports provide any evidence that Clinton Foundation donors impacted decisions Clinton made at the State Department. According to the Times, Band attempted to “connect” Chagoury with someone at the State Department to discuss “his interests in Lebanon.” But the actual email exchange provides no support for this claim -- Band gives no explanation for why Chagoury wants to speak to a “substance person re Lebanon.” The Clinton surrogates fact sheet states that Chagoury, who is of Lebanese descent, “was simply seeking to share his insights on the upcoming Lebanese election with the right person at the Department of State for whom this information might be helpful. In seeking to provide information, he was not seeking action by the Department.”
Nor does the Times explain what Chagoury’s “interests in Lebanon” are -- while the language suggests he has business interests in the country, the paper provides no evidence that is the case. Chagoury has engaged in philanthropic ventures in Lebanon. In 2008, Chagoury made a $10 million donation “to fund the medical school” at the Lebanese American University and has been involved with a charity called In Defense Of Christians, which, according to its mission statement, seeks “to ensure the protection and preservation of Christianity and Christian culture in the Middle East.”
Likewise, the Times report and other similar accounts also allege that “the foundation” attempted to influence Clinton aides to “help find a job for a foundation associate,” based on a Band email highlighted by Judicial Watch. But the email exchange these reports are pointing to clearly shows the “foundation associate” the Times refers to was never employed by the Clinton Foundation, according to the Clinton campaign, and the email exchanges themselves indicate that the State Department aides were already intending to offer the candidate a position. In comments to ABC News, State Department spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau also noted that the State Department “hires political appointees through a ‘variety of avenues’ and suggested there was nothing unusual about this exchange,” adding “State Department officials are regularly in touch with a range of outside individuals and organizations including non-profits, NGOs, think tanks, and others.”
Judicial Watch is a right-wing organization with a history of duping the press on Clinton email stories. The media should not be so quick to adopt their framing as the truth.