Bill Clinton pledged to dial back his international charity work and personal earning power so Hillary Clinton can go to State. But in reality, a set of Obama-backed restrictions leaves a lot more that the ex-president can do than cannot.
He can still give speeches around the world and pull down six-figure speaking and consulting fees.
He can still ask for multi-million dollar checks to fund the Clinton Foundation’s work.
His foundation can host big events overseas and accept major contributions from foreign governments to fund its international disease-fighting, development and environmental initiatives.
And if he wants to do something that makes ethics officials at State uneasy, they can flag their concerns to the Clintons, but likely won’t be able to veto Bill’s proposed activities, experts say.
The goal of the restrictions, which Clinton’s aides hammered out with representatives from President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, is clear: to avoid situations where Bill Clinton could be perceived as undercutting U.S. foreign policy as advanced by Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
But in and of themselves, the restrictions and existing ethics rules won’t accomplish that, according to ethics and diplomacy experts.
That’ll leave Bill Clinton to “basically self-censor and stand down from some lucrative engagements where the appearance will be enough to create questions,” said Mark Dillen, an international media consultant who served as a senior Foreign Service officer in the Clinton State Department.
“They establish the areas of concern,” Dillen said of the restrictions. “But it’s not the sort of thing where having laid out these guidelines, you can just say, ‘Well, the guidelines are there, so it’s all going to work fine.’ ”
There are, however, some clear don’ts:
Clinton won’t be able to solicit any contributions for a key group in his charitable network, the Clinton Global Initiative. Under the guidelines, it will incorporate separately from the Clinton Foundation and won’t be able to host big events abroad or accept contributions from foreign governments – a restriction that could limit the Global Initiative’s fast-expanding influence.
And Clinton won’t be able to accept consulting work, foreign speaking engagements or donations from foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation without first alerting State Department ethics officials – another move designed to head off the perception that Bill Clinton’s outside activities interfere with Obama’s foreign policy.
But perhaps most importantly, both the Foundation and the Global Initiative will disclose all contributors, which could dissuade some potential benefactors going forward.
“For large numbers of donors, being able to maintain their confidentiality is important,” said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman. “You might have different kinds of donors contributing going forward.”
A Clinton aide familiar with the agreement, who spoke on condition on anonymity, said the disclosure pledge and voluntary limitations are unprecedented for a former president.
Plus, the aide said those steps are in addition to existing federal ethics rules and pointed to an internal document asserting the conditions “go above and beyond the requirements of the law to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Still, some of the conditions seem arbitrary, Dillen said. The guidelines bar the Clinton Global Initiative from accepting foreign sponsorship contributions, but allow the Clinton Foundation’s initiatives to continue accepting foreign donations.
“I don’t see much substantive difference between (contributions to) the Global Initiative and the Foundation,” Dillen said. “Almost every fundraising ativity – especially overseas – is seen as some sort of quid pro quo.”
The Clinton Foundation has raised more than $500 million from more than 200,000 people, groups and governments since it was created in the waning years of the Clinton administration to finance Bill Clinton’s charitable initiatives and build his library. It has never released a list of its contributors, but they reportedly include the royal families in Morocco and Saudi Arabia and the governments of Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei, Taiwan and Oman, as well as a Chinese advanced materials laboratory.
As part of Clinton’s agreement, the foundation this month will release a list including all its donors. And it will update the list, as well as the list of sponsors of the Clinton Global Initiative, for each year that Hillary Clinton, currently a New York Senator, remains the nation’s top diplomat.
“You have to give them credit that they decided to disclose those donors,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the non-partisan watchdog group the Campaign Legal Center, but it doesn’t eliminate the appearance that big contributors are gaining access to a particularly influential former president.
“It’s the act of the solicitation that is the troubling act here,” said McGehee, who hopes attention on the Clinton’s situation will revitalize legislation to regulate donations to presidential foundations and libraries.
It’s “troubling to have a former president raising money from foreign entities while his wife is Secretary of State,” McGehee said. “But, as a policy matter, this next Congress should take a more comprehensive look at these libraries, the role of former presidents and the kind of obligations they have and public support they should get.”
Bill Clinton receives more than $1.2 million a year http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0408/9531.html in presidential retirement benefits, including everything from a $200,000 annual pension to upwards of $50,000 for travel, about $160,000 in staff salaries and benefits and about $735,000 to rent and equip Clinton’s 8,300-square-foot Harlem penthouse office.
But that pales in comparison to his earnings from the speaking circuit, which netted him more than $10 million last year alone, including more than $4.6 million from 20 foreign speeches, according to a mandatory disclosure Hillary Clinton filed with the Senate.
Last week, Bill Clinton took heat for delivering a speech in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in which he praised an embattled Malaysian businessman who has contributed to the Clinton Global Initiative and paid Clinton $200,000 to speak.
And during a 2005 philanthropic stop in Kazakhstan, Clinton backed that nation’s president’s bid to head a European security group – a sentiment that didn’t jibe with the Bush administration’s cooler stance towards the Kazakh leader, who had been criticized for a spotty human rights record.
Among the conditions Clinton negotiated with Obama are that the Clinton Global Initiative will not be able to host its large annual events outside the U.S., though it will continue to be able to host smaller site-specific gatherings abroad. Plus the Clinton Foundation will be permitted to host foreign events.
And Clinton has agreed to share proposed foreign speaking engagements and foreign government contributions to the Clinton Foundation – as well as all proposed consulting contracts – with State Department ethics officials, and possibly the White House Counsel’s office. According to the internal document, if those offices had any qualms about possible conflicts of interest they would be able to “share those concerns with Senator and President Clinton for appropriate action.”
It’s unclear, though, whether either office would be able to reject proposed speeches, consultancies or foreign donatons to the Clinton Foundation’s initiatives. The Clinton aide familiar with the agreement directed questions about such veto power to the Obama transition team’s press office, which did not respond to inquiries about Clinton’s conditions.
But Larry Noble, a government ethics lawyer who was president of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws, said there’s not a whole lot agency ethics officials can do.
Typically, ethics officers serve more of an advisory function, Noble said, adding they don’t have enforcement authority and usually try to work out compromises rather than refer matters for enforcement. They have even fewer options in dealing with presidential appointees and their families, such as the Clintons, Noble said.
“While she would be subject to federal laws and ethics rules, as well as presidential directives and policies, she couldn’t be fired or disciplined by her agency,” Noble said of Hillary Clinton. “On the other hand … there isn't a lot a presidential appointee can do if the president asks them to resign, other than to find a new job or look for an agent for the book they may be ready to write.”
The Clinton aide did say the former president will not share proposed texts of speeches, partly because he seldom speaks from prepared remarks.
That will make it even tougher for the agency ethics officials asked to review Bill Clinton’s proposed activities, predicted Dillen, the former Foreign Service officer.
“I don’t envy the people who will have to pass judgment on these sorts of informative heads up – let’s not call them requests,” Dillen said.
State Department officials likely will feel torn between protecting themselves by being hyper-vigilant toward Clinton’s activities and trying to avoid irking the brass by crimping Clinton’s style, Dillen said.
Clinton could abide by the letter of the conditions and the State Department advice and still find himself inadvertently interfering in foreign policy by “saying or doing something that embarrasses his spouse or the Obama administration, or that blesses or condemns a political actor that the Obama administration is trying to categorize or direct a different way,” Dillen said.
While his wife is new to the job and scrutiny is high, Clinton may curtail his activities and be circumspect in his remarks, Dillen predicted. “And then perhaps – just because he has this magnetic attraction to these sorts of opportunities – he will gradually test the waters more. It’s what happens five or six months or a year down the line that will be interesting.”