By Mike Lillis - 08-26-16 06:04 AM EDT
Donald Trump is not the only voice sounding the alarm over conflicts-of-interest surrounding Hillary Clinton's namesake nonprofit.
Government watchdog groups -- all of them champions of heightened transparency, campaign finance reform and other Democratic priorities -- are also warning of potentially "very serious" conflicts of interest if the Clinton Foundation continues business as usual with Clinton in the White House.
The transparency advocates are not calling for the Foundation to shut its doors, as Trump has done from the campaign trail. But they are urging the adoption of tough new firewalls to eliminate any perception that Clinton Foundation donors could use their wallets to gain undue access to a Hillary Clinton White House.
"The Clinton Foundation has posed a very serious conflict of interest for the entire time that it's existed," Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, said Thursday. "The conflicts of interest are very real, and that gives Trump some ammunition to throw at it, and we're going to hear about it [until the campaign ends]."
Holman said Clinton's recent vow to bar all foreign and corporate donations to the Clinton Foundation if she wins the presidency is "a big, big step in the right direction." But, he quickly added, that alone is not enough to eliminate the "pay to play" perceptions now dogging the Clinton campaign following revelations that top State Department aides acted on the foundation's behalf when Clinton headed the agency.
To do that, he said, the Clintons will have to snip all family ties to the foundation, including the removal of Chelsea Clinton from the group's board -- a step the Clinton team said it's not ready to take.
Chelsea Clinton's role on the board will only perpetuate the "pay-to-play" perceptions and accusations, the watchdogs said. "As long as the Clinton Foundation is tied to the family," Holman said, "very wealthy" people and special interests "will try to find a way to throw money at the feet" of the Clinton family. And if Chelsea Clinton remains on the board -- especially if she retains a fundraising roll -- "she would be the avenue."
"If she really wants to get out from under the cloud she should sever ties completely with the foundation," Holman said.
Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, agreed. He warned that the State Department saga, even with no direct evidence that donors were given special access, has created "a very serious perception problem" that threatens to undermine the public's faith in the government and its institutions. Barring foreign and corporate donations to the Clinton Foundation is a start, he said, but that alone won't counteract appearances that the game is rigged.
"You'd still have large individual donations that could raise a question," Noble said Thursday.
He emphasized that the Clinton Foundation debate is illustrative of a larger systemic problem surrounding money in politics -- a system in which even the appearance that wealthy donors have special influence stirs distrust in the public's mind.
"Regardless of how well-founded a meeting is ... the suspicion is always going to be there is some connection" to the donor's largess, Noble said.
In the case of the Clinton Foundation, Noble said he wants more separation from the potential president.
"I'd want to know what other safeguards they're going to have [to ensure] the foundation is not being used as a conduit to get access to the White House," he said. To do that, the Clintons must "sever all connections and not have any contact with the foundation."
"I think the foundation can still exist," he said, "but there are going to have to be a lot of safeguards there."
The Clinton Foundation has long been dogged by conflict of interest charges, but those accusations crescendoed this week after the Associated Press reported that an outsized number of people "outside the government" who gained access to Clinton when she was State secretary were donors to the foundation -- "either personally or through companies or groups."
Trump has pounced, taking every opportunity to highlight the imbroglio as part of his ongoing message that "crooked Hillary" is simply too dishonest to merit the presidency.
"She wants to sell out American security to the Clinton Foundation for a big, fat pile of cash," Trump said Wednesday during a stump speech in Jackson, Miss. "It's hard to tell where the Clinton Foundation ends and where the State Department begins."
The crowd responded with a chorus of boos.
Trump is hardly the only Republican with the Foundation on his radar. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of State John Kerry. Chaffetz requested more information about State's relationship with the foundation in the wake of reports that "give rise to a perception that access to our State Department's official resources were for sale."
The response from the Clinton team has been at least as aggressive. Campaign officials asked the AP to remove a tweet announcing its story; they blasted an email to reporters Wednesday highlighting a Vox analysis characterizing the AP story as "a mess" of inaccuracies; Brian Fallon, a top spokesman, has made the rounds on cable TV refuting the story; and other Clinton surrogates were employed Thursday for the same purpose.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a Clinton backer, maintained there's no evidence of a quid pro quo between State and the foundation.
"Nobody has surfaced one example of when somebody got something of real value from the State Department because they made a contribution to the Clinton Foundation," he said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program.
Still, Himes acknowledged "the potential for a conflict of interest" if Clinton wins the White House, and he joined the government watchdogs in calling for tough new rules to ensure that even the perception of pay-to-play is eliminated.
"I would hope that they would take a purer than Caesar's wife approach," he told CNN. "You know, white as the driven snow."