Republicans are using a flawed Associated Press report -- that baselessly alleged Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton granted special State Department access to Clinton Foundation donors -- to justify calls for an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Even though the report included no evidence of wrongdoing, numerous media figures hyped it as a scandal, claiming “the optics are disturbing” for Clinton.
GOP Cites AP Report To Call For An Investigation Into The Clinton Foundation
House Republicans Cite AP Report As “Grounds” To Request A Special Counsel To Investigate Clinton Foundation. House Republicans claimed that an August 24 Associated Press report provided “grounds” for them to request that the Justice Department “create a special counsel and ‘investigate the Clinton Foundation and alleged 'pay to play' tactics where donors to the Clinton Foundation were able to obtain inappropriate access to and influence over then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.’" From an August 31 Washington Post article:
On Wednesday, an independent group of Republicans united behind another request, asking the Justice Department to create a special counsel and “investigate the Clinton Foundation and alleged 'pay to play' tactics where donors to the Clinton Foundation were able to obtain inappropriate access to and influence over then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.” The grounds for that request: last week's Associated Press story on the access some Clinton Foundation donors received to Clinton's State Department.
Clinton's campaign had waged an unusually successful fight against that story. It quibbled with the AP's initial tweet promoting its findings by saying “half” of the people Clinton met with personally had donated to the foundation. In fact, half of the private citizens — a fraction of all people Clinton met — had donated, and that sample came from the limited schedule the AP had been able to obtain in a transparency struggle with the State Department. [The Washington Post, 8/31/16]
AP Report Alleged That “More Than Half The People Outside The Government Who Met With Hillary Clinton While She Was Secretary Of State Gave Money … To The Clinton Foundation.” According to The Associated Press, “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.” The AP wrote that the number is “an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.” From the AP’s August 24 report:
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. It's an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.
At 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, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.
The AP's findings represent the first systematic effort to calculate the scope of the intersecting interests of Clinton Foundation donors and people who met personally with Clinton or spoke to her by phone about their needs.
Clinton's campaign said the AP analysis was flawed because it did not include in its calculations meetings with foreign diplomats or U.S. government officials, and the meetings AP examined covered only the first half of Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. [The Associated Press, 8/24/16]
The AP Report Was Hyped And Scandalized By Media Figures Who Said The Evidence-Free “Optics” Of A Hillary Clinton Pay-To-Play Scandal Were “Disturbing”
CBS This Morning: “The Optics Are Disturbing.” Despite pointing out that the Associated Press report contained “no proven quid pro quo,” CBS’ Anthony Mason claimed “the optics are disturbing” and Bloomberg’s John Heilemann called the report “very unseemly, at a minimum.” From the August 24 edition of CBS This Morning:
ANTHONY MASON (CO-HOST): We should point out there is no proven quid pro quo here.
JOHN HEILEMANN: That’s the point -- that’s the point the Clinton campaign certainly is making and as of now, today, it is true.
MASON: But the optics are disturbing.
JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, the notion that people are able to arrange last-minute meetings with the secretary of state, that there is a private kind of back channel between foundation staff, like Doug Band, who is the most famous of these people, Huma Abedin, the most famous of her senior staffers, that that’s a way where, you if you need to see Secretary Clinton, you write a check for $1 million.
It’s all very unseemly, at a minimum. [CBS, CBS This Morning, 8/24/16]
CNN’s Josh Rogin: The AP Report “Looks Bad.” CNN political analyst Josh Rogin said the Associated Press report “looks bad” even though Clinton's behavior was “not illegal” and “doesn't even technically break the rules.” From the August 24 edition of CNN’s Early Start:
JOSH ROGIN: At the same time, 85 is still a big number and that’s a lot of donors. Even though it’s not illegal, and as the AP story notes, it doesn't even technically break the rules that Clinton and the Clinton Foundation agreed to, it looks bad. [CNN, Early Start, 8/24/16]
CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield: “Even If Nothing Resulted From It, There Are The Appearances.” During the August 23 edition of CNN’s Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield, host Ashleigh Banfield told Democratic strategist James Carville that “even if nothing resulted from” the Associated Press report, there’s still “the appearances”:
ASHLEIGH BANFIELD (HOST): There were communications between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department --
CARVILLE: All right, let's start with -- let's start with facts. Can --
BANFIELD: And even if nothing resulted from it --
CARVILLE: Right. Can? Can? Do I? --
BANFIELD: There are the appearances, which Hillary Clinton said she would do her best to make sure wouldn't happen. [CNN, Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield, 8/23/16]
US News’ David Catanese: AP Report “Underlines The Perceptions That People Have Had About The Clintons For Years.” U.S. News & World Report senior politics writer David Catanese claimed the Associated Press report “underlines the perceptions” that the Clintons are “secretive, that they help their friends and that they're willing to blur lines no matter what, out of defiance and arrogance.” From the August 24 edition of CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello:
DAVID CATANESE: Look, this is a problem that underlines the perceptions that people have had about the Clintons for years, that they're secretive, that they help their friends and that they're willing to blur lines no matter what, out of defiance and arrogance. I would just ask Keith [Boykin]. He says the foundation should continue to stay open, even after a Hillary Clinton presidency takes place, if that takes place. Do you think it is OK if a billionaire foreign donor gave money to the Clinton Foundation and then two weeks later asked for access with a meeting to the president of the United States? Would that be OK for you? Would you think that that's ethical and fair and a good way to perform government? [CNN, CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello, 8/24/16]
… Even Though The AP Report Found No Evidence Of Wrongdoing
AP: The Meetings “Do Not Appear To Violate Legal Agreements.” The Associated Press noted in their August 24 report that “The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009.” [The Associated Press, 8/24/16]
AP’s Stephen Braun On Morning Joe: “We’re Not Saying Crimes Were Committed Here. … There’s No Evidence That There Were Ethics Breaches Here.” During the August 24 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Associated Press reporter Stephen Braun told the panel that there was “no evidence that there were ethics breaches” between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department:
STEPHEN BRAUN: We're not saying crimes were committed here, we’re not -- there's no evidence that there were ethics broaches here. But these are the kind of things that ethics councils in administrations worry about. And in some cases, you know, they might have stymied meetings like that. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 8/24/16]
And Several Journalists And Media Critics Slammed The Misleading Report For Drumming Up A Baseless Scandal
MSNBC.com: “There Are No Real Allegations Of Wrongdoing, Only Assorted Details That Seem Kinda Sorta Wrong. … The Result Is Something That Resembles A ‘Controversy,’ Even If The Evidence Is Vague And Unpersuasive.” In an August 24 article on MSNBC.com, Steve Benen wrote that “there are no real allegations of wrongdoing here, only assorted details that seem kinda sorta wrong to Clinton’s detractors." He added, “The result is something something that resembles a ‘controversy,’ even if the evidence is vague and unpersuasive.” From MSNBC.com’s August 24 article (emphasis original):
The report from the Associated Press yesterday came with a headline designed to raise eyebrows: “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” The story’s lede leaves no doubt that the AP believes it’s uncovered something resembling wrongdoing.
But right off the bat, the first sentence undercuts the provocative headline: “more than half” of those Clinton met with “outside of government” supported her husband’s charitable foundation. In other words, to arrive at the controversial figure, the Associated Press had to exclude all kinds of people: State Department officials, diplomats, ambassadors, foreign leaders and officials, White House personnel, military servicemen and women, etc.
In other words, after excluding the people any Secretary of State might ordinarily see on a typical day, and looking exclusively at this smaller subset of people Hillary Clinton met with, more than half of them contributed to Bill Clinton’s charity.
There are no real allegations of wrongdoing here, only assorted details that seem kinda sorta wrong to Clinton’s detractors. The result is something that resembles a “controversy,” even if the evidence is vague and unpersuasive. There’s a perception of some unidentified wrongdoing, and evidently, that’s enough.
But without proof of improprieties, this new “scandal,” at least for now, rings hollow. [MSNBC.com, 8/24/16]
Washington Monthly’s Nancy LeTourneau: “From The Perspective Of The Other People Judging” Clinton, “It Looks Bad. Welcome To The World Of Optics As Scandal.” In an article titled “How the AP Spun the Story About the Clinton Foundation,” Washington Monthly magazine’s Nancy LeTourneau explained that the Associated Press report “has just shown us why it is important to be vigilant in how we consume the news as it is reported.” LeTourneau lambasted media for reporting on the AP report by suggesting that “it just plain looks bad,” saying, “That is basically what most every drummed up ‘scandal’ against Hillary Clinton comes down to.” From Washington Monthly’s August 24 article (emphasis original):
The Associated Press has just shown us why it is important to be vigilant in how we consume the news as it is reported. They took some interesting information they gathered and spun it into something it wasn’t…scandalous.
In other words, what it comes down to is “it just plain looks bad.” That is basically what most every drummed up “scandal” against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad. Welcome to the world of optics as scandal.
One way to look at this is that the AP spun the story they wanted to tell about this information. That happens almost all the time and we often don’t notice. To clarify how that happened here, note first of all the AP headline: “Many Donors to Clinton Foundation Met With Her at State.” As Adam Khan points out – that’s actually not true.
One has to wonder why the AP chose this story of Clinton’s 30+ year relationship with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient committed to combating global poverty as the one to highlight in their efforts to suggest that the Secretary of State met with people because of their donations to the Clinton Foundation. I can’t imagine a more flawed example.
I am not suggesting any nefarious motives on the part of the AP reporters. But as we see so often in the media, the facts must be paired with a narrative that gives them meaning. It behooves us as consumers of the media to think twice about whether or not the narrative fits ALL of the facts. [Washington Monthly, 8/24/16]
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias: “Journalists Need To Admit When We’ve Struck Out.” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote that publications will sometimes use “spurious findings” because “everyone is trying to be interesting,” and the Associated Press report is no exception. Yglesias wrote that the AP report “did not come up with anything” and “that’s the story” and “despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity”:
Publication bias is the name of a well-known but hard to solve problem in academic research. A paper with a striking new finding is much more likely to be accepted at a top journal than a paper that says, “I investigated an interesting hypothesis, but it turned out to be wrong.” This means that spurious findings — statistical coincidences and such — make it into the published literature, while boring null results don’t. This gives a distorted picture of reality simply because everyone is trying to be interesting.
Similarly, the AP’s basic reporting project here seems like it was worth a shot and probably also fairly time-consuming. But it did not come up with anything. Clinton tried to help a Nobel Prize winner. She went to the Kennedy Center Honors. She had a meeting with the head of the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics about a State Department charitable initiative.
There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.
The real news here ought to be just the opposite: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story. [Vox.com, 8/24/16]