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New Clinton Foundation donation policy sparks fresh criticism

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton poses for a cell phone photo with audience members after speaking at campaign event at John Marshall High School in Cleveland, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Clinton Foundation’s announcement that it will no longer accept donations from corporations or foreign governments if Hillary Clinton is elected president may not do much to alleviate the political burden that questions over the foundation’s activities have placed on her campaign.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the foundation would stop taking those donations if Clinton wins the election, that Bill Clinton would not give paid speeches during her presidency, and that the last Clinton Global Initiative meeting will be held this year regardless of the outcome.

Questions have swirled for years around the millions of dollars given to the foundation by businesses and governments during Clinton’s term as secretary of state and whether that money led to special treatment by the State Department.

Clinton has adamantly denied that any decisions made during her tenure were influenced by foundation donations, but Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his allies have claimed “Crooked” Hillary Clinton sold access and possibly violated the law. Trump has also often focused on donations the Clinton Foundation received from countries like Saudi Arabia where women and homosexuals are oppressed.

Recently-released emails renewed questions about the relationship between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation, although they did not definitively prove that any wrongdoing occurred.

CNN reported that three FBI field offices sought an investigation of the foundation’s activities earlier this year, but the Department of Justice turned down the request saying it had looked into the foundation the previous year and found insufficient evidence.

Pressure has grown on the Clinton Foundation over the last week, with the Boston Globe editorial board and Clinton supporter former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell saying it should be shut down if she is elected.

Republicans were predictably unimpressed with Thursday’s announcement.

“This effort to shield Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation after more than a year of controversy is too little, too late,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.

Priebus also argued that the change in policy proves the acceptance of those donations while Clinton was at the State Department was inappropriate.

“Now that they have admitted there is a problem, the Clinton Foundation should immediately cease accepting foreign donations and return every penny ever taken from other countries, several of which have atrocious human rights records and ties to terrorism,” he said.

Peter Schweizer, author of “Clinton Cash,” a book that attempted to link foundation donations to State Department decisions, said the policy change is “a stunning tacit admission of wrongdoing.”

“If it would be wrong for Hillary’s foundation to accept foreign cash as president, why wasn’t it wrong for Hillary’s foundation to accept foreign cash from oligarchs and countries who had business pending on her desk as Sec. of State?” Schweizer wrote on Breitbart News.

Democrats have offered a more positive assessment.

“Hillary Clinton should be commended for this decision,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, “whereas in contrast Trump still refuses to release his taxes, has ducked and dodged about his business relations with Russia, and almost certainly would never really recuse himself from his companies, as long as his children were running his businesses in his so-called absence.”

According to Varoga, Trump’s lack of transparency about his own finances and business dealings undercut any criticisms he hurls at Clinton.

“Republican hacks will never praise Clinton for making the right decision, and the American people will never believe Donald Trump as long as he continues to hide the facts behind his taxes and shady business dealings in this country and across the world,” he said.

Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Strategies, said Republicans are trying to “preemptively create controversy where there is none” because the whole debate is premised on Clinton winning the election. If Clinton wins, though, he feels this change would be appropriate.

“I think it’s wise for the Clinton campaign to do everything they can to allay concerns before they arise, and it’s why their decision to dispel any conflicts of interest before Hillary even wins the White House is critically important,” McDermott said.

He also questioned whether Trump is willing to allay concerns about what will happen to his companies if elected. The billionaire has said his children would run his business, but he has not offered details for how conflicts of interest would be avoided.

“Frankly, it would behoove Donald Trump to do the same – as he’s given no indication as to what would happen to his involvement in the Trump Organization should he win in November,” McDermott said. “Nor has he released his tax returns – which the American people deserve to see.”

Regardless of the Clinton Foundation’s future policies, Republican strategist Brian Fraley predicted its past activities will remain a thorn in the side of the Clinton campaign.

“The intermingling of private and public interests and the appearance of pay-for-access at the State Department are stains on her reputation,” Fraley said.

“I don't think this announcement changes anything. You can't put the toothpaste back into the tube.”

Political scientists agree that scrutiny of the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department may have necessitated this action, but it does little to take the issue off the table for Clinton’s critics.

“This doesn’t really solve their problem,” said Dan Franklin, a professor of political science at Georgia State University.

There is a perception that the most egregious potential conflicts stem from foreign donations, but unlike a secretary of state, a president is intertwined in pretty much all foreign and domestic matters. Any money a foundation with the family name on it is getting could have implications for the Clinton White House.

Changing future policy also does not defuse the controversy over the foundation’s past dealings. Since many of those criticisms surround only circumstantial allegations and unproven appearances of malfeasance, they can be challenging to concretely defend against.

“The appearance of conflict of interest is very difficult to explain away,” Franklin said.

Even some Clinton supporters acknowledge that the donations look bad, whether pay-for-play accusations are substantiated or not.

“There's nothing you can do to make the Clinton Foundation not smack of impropriety,” Matthew Yglesias of Vox tweeted Friday.

Stephanie Martin, a professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University, said the foundation’s changes could help bring an end to the latest wave of stories about alleged corruption, but Clinton needs better answers to questions about its activities.

“Hillary Clinton often gives answers that don’t resonate with people as truthful,” Martin said.

For example, it might be more effective to acknowledge that donors to the foundation may have hoped for access or special treatment but to still insist that they did not receive it, rather than to claim that nobody ever expected favors.

“It’s the evasion that bothers people, I think,” Martin said. “It’s almost like she doesn’t trust the public to be able to understand the complex nature of things and that gets the Clintons into trouble time and time again.”

It could also help to focus more attention on the philanthropic work the foundation has accomplished.

“I rarely hear them defend the foundation for the very, very good work it does,” she said.

Some Clinton Foundation projects have stumbled, but overall, it devotes a larger percentage of its funds to charitable work than the average non-profit and the Clintons do not receive any salary from it. Bill Clinton has at times had travel expenses covered by the foundation for trips that included non-profit work and other activities, but the organization has an A rating from CharityWatch.

Whatever Hillary Clinton does now, it may be too late to win back voters’ trust or to lose the faith of those who still believe in her. Polls indicate that less than 40 percent of voters consider her honest and trustworthy, although Trump’s numbers are generally no better.

“That ship I think has sailed,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

If Clinton is concerned about the appearance of undue influence from donors, it may have made sense to stop taking those donations now or promise to shut the foundation down completely. They also could have ceased accepting foreign donations when Clinton announced her candidacy last year to eliminate fears of conflicts of interest.

Skelley is skeptical that it will matter much with voters either way, though, unless significant new damaging information comes out. As it is, it blends in with other alleged Clinton scandals that Republicans have promoted over the years.

“There’s a tendency to really overreach and try to turn everything the Clintons do into the crime of the century,” he said.

Even if it does not change voters’ minds, the continuing controversy can still help Republicans drive up turnout and unite their voters against Clinton. A promise to halt foreign and corporate donations after the election gives her opponents fresh ammunition to make that case.

“The RNC makes a great point,” Fraley said. “If the Clinton Foundation did nothing wrong, why would they then feel the need to change what they are doing?”

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