Responding to my post last week that criticized his New York magazine column (“The Disastrous Clinton Post-Presidency”), Jonathan Chait seems irritated indeed. Addressing his long reply, I number the items below more or less as he does. Shorter: After all these words, he still doesn’t fill the gaping holes in his polemic against Bill and Hillary Clinton.
1). “Conason identifies no errors or misinformation of any kind,” complains Chait in his preamble. “His technique is to divert his audience’s attention away from the specific claims at issue, on which he has no ground to stand, and onto the amorphous question of the general virtues of the Clintons and the untrustworthiness of their enemies.”
My “technique” is to point out what Chait got wrong, period. My post was unsparingly specific on how his rather lengthy column misled his readers, mostly by omission — and starting with his failure to even mention the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. It was a very strange omission because that powerful body’s 2010 decision to approve the Uranium One deal with Rosatom, a Russian firm, was the fulcrum of the New York Times story that he cited. (And nowhere did I discuss, let alone divert attention to, the Clintons’ “general virtues” or the shortcomings of their “enemies.”)
2 & 3). “In fact, my column does mention that [Bill] Clinton’s charitable work has ‘raise[d] a lot of money for charitable purposes that can do a lot of good,’ ” notes Chait rather stingily. “It does not single out the HIV initiative for praise, but this has no bearing on the issue at hand, which concerns the conflicts of interest in their work.”
In a column headlined “The Disastrous Clinton Post-Presidency,” the volume and details of the useful work that Bill Clinton and his foundation have accomplished around the world seems quite relevant. (So does Clinton’s successful political effort on behalf of Barack Obama, a cause very dear to Chait.)
4). “Parroting” means Chait did no reporting on the topic.
5). “Conason ignores the conflict of interest and instead focuses his defense on the fact that the State Department could not approve the [Uranium One deal] alone. This is true. However, neither the Times nor I claim otherwise. My column referred to ‘the State Department’s decision to approve the sale,’ which is the policy decision at issue. I did not suggest that State Department approval was sufficient for the purchase to go forward. All that matters for the conflict of interest to be meaningful is that State Department approval was necessary.”
Here, Chait’s omission of CFIUS seems to morph from a silly mistake into something worse. Leaving out any description or even ackowledgment of the real approval process – dominated by Treasury, which chairs CFIUS, and the Pentagon – he can hint at a bribery scenario, however implausible. If the principals of Uranium One were spending millions over a period of several years to influence Hillary Clinton, why did they spend no money to influence any official at Treasury or any of the seven other agencies on CFIUS? How was Hillary Clinton to know that not only the past but the future donations of the Uranium One principals were intended to influence her? (Yes, about half of those donations arrived long after CFIUS approved the deal.) But then he’s just reflecting the prosecutorial construction of the Times story.
6). “It is true that theTimes does not show that Secretary Clinton personally influenced the decision,” he concedes. “I never claimed otherwise. And of course if there were evidence that she had intervened in the deal, it would probably be gone now, since her improperly used email account has been wiped.”
No, Chait “never claimed” otherwise – but he didn’t mention the exculpatory facts either, which was my point. As he knows, Clinton turned over 30,000 emails to the State Department (unlike Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who have provided zero emails and seem to have destroyed all of their official emails). Mike McIntire of the Times made the same point on WNYC radio in a Monday interview. What both seem to forget is that Secretary Clinton’s staff – including Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez, who represented the department on CFIUS – used state.gov email addresses. All of their emails should still exist on the department’s servers, including any that might mention Uranium One.
7). “[T]he conflict of interest I describe is not between [Bill] Clinton’s role as foundation operator and his role as private speechmaker. Rather, the conflict is between both those roles, which makes Clinton beholden to people and businesses with a vested interest in government policy, and his wife’s role as policymaker.”
If so, Chait’s point wasn’t very clear. He simply linked to a Washington Post article that described an overlap between foundation donors and Clinton speech sponsors. What he says now is like claiming that every single donation to a member of Congress by an entity that lobbies is a conflict of interest. While I wouldn’t necessarily disagree in principle, this isn’t a very penetrating observation. To charge an ethical breach, it’s usually necessary to cite evidence of a witting quid pro quo. There is no evidence that Hillary Clinton knew who donated to the foundation or who lobbied the State Department, which has 11,000 stateside employees, on any given issue.
8 & 9). “If I had accused the Clintons of being the only taxpayers in history to make errors, this would be a relevant defense. My suggestion, instead, is that the Clintons’ disclosure — while not literally the worst in the history of accounting — is sloppy and poor.”
Actually, Chait knows (or should know) that since 2009 the Clinton Foundation has disclosed far more information concerning its donors than U.S. law requires. All of its donors are listed on the Foundation website. So far, its critics have found very few omissions or errors, considering that the foundation has taken in tens of thousands of donations, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, over the past 15 years. So “sloppy” seems harsh; “poor,” when compared with similar institutions that make no disclosure, is just false.
10). “Conason takes me to task for quoting a 2013 New York Times story describing haphazard financing and organization at the Clinton Foundation. According to Conason, the story has been debunked by no less an authority than Bill Clinton himself…The dispute delves into the intricacies of nonprofit funding streams, but the larger point — that the foundation was poorly organized — is not even disputed by Conason.”
I would surely dispute that assertion – which wasn’t the gist of a Times story consisting mostly of gossip about internal wrangling at the foundation. According to Chait, the Times Washington editor “stands by” that article, but that doesn’t impress me much. After all, the Times still “stands by” its dreadful Whitewater stories, as far as I can tell.
Chait dismisses the former president’s rebuttal with a touch of snark, but Clinton has run the foundation successfully for more than 15 years. (Before that, he ran the federal government and achieved a budget surplus, among other things.) The Financial Accounting Standards Board clearly supports Clinton’s interpretation of how donations must be reported on the foundation’s IRS 990 forms. (See paragraph 8.) I have no idea what Chait means by “poorly organized” and — insofar as he knows nothing firsthand about its operations — he probably doesn’t know what he means, either. It’s just a cheap insult. But to take one example mentioned above, a “poorly organized” foundation couldn’t have provided millions of people with HIV/AIDS care across many countries in very difficult, often rural conditions over the past decade or so.
11). Chait defends the notion that Bill Clinton was somehow venal in supporting his wife’s appointment as Secretary of State, using a long quote from an article by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. He writes: “Lizza is not charging that Clinton began the Clinton Global Initiative because his wife was Secretary of State, but that he wanted his wife to become Secretary of State because it would help his foundation. The fact that the Clinton Global Initiative existed before 2009 in no way refutes Lizza’s reporting.”
I didn’t suggest that the existence of CGI refuted Lizza or his anonymous source. My point was that Clinton clearly didn’t need his wife’s help to attract foreign leaders or donors – he had plenty of both from the very beginning in 2004.
12). Somehow Chait thinks that when I mentioned his links from Drudge and Politico, it proves that I approach these issues “as a true believer in the Clintons’ virtue, rather than, as he says, a critic of journalists who make insinuations without evidence.” I don’t see the logic.
I will simply note that I’ve written many critical words about the Clintons, notably in 2008, when I was much tougher in Salon and The New York Observer on Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama concerning both policy and politics. So far the evidence of wrongdoing at the Clinton Foundation and the State Department, as opposed to error, is non-existent. There is literally nothing more than insinuation by the likes of Peter Schweizer, amplified and echoed by the Times, and Chait, and onward, without much attempt by any of these worthies to verify or even explain accurately. While I have often appreciated Chait’s writing, I don’t apologize for exposing the emptiness of these exercises.