I’m fairly sure that when William Shakespeare penned the phrase “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he did not have in mind the constant cycle of scandals that envelop Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the phrase easily applies.
When it comes to the Clintons, the most mundane actions can be raised to the specter of national outrage, because of the appearance, but not actual incident, of impropriety.
Take, for example, the imbroglio over newly released e-mails regarding interactions between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department when Clinton was secretary of state. These exchanges, primarily between Clinton’s assistant Huma Abedin and Clinton Foundation top honcho Doug Band, have become Exhibit A in efforts to brand Clinton as a corrupt figure and the Foundation as a pay-for-play operation. The evidence, however, speaks to a different reality.
In 2009, Band reached out to Abedin and asked if she could help put a Nigerian businessman of Lebanese descent named Gilbert Chagoury – who had donated to the Clinton Foundation — in touch with “the substance person re: Lebanon.” Chagoury apparently wanted to pass along information about upcoming elections in Lebanon. Considering that State Department diplomats glean information and intelligence from civil society leaders, activists, and business people on a regular basis there’s nothing particularly untoward about the ask. But because Chagoury is a Clinton donor, there’s a scent of scandal.
So what happened? Abedin told Band she’d reach out to Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs at the time. Yet, according to a Washington Post article, Feltman says he never met or spoke to Chagoury, and “No one ever told me he was seeking me out.”
So: Clinton Foundation asks for help with donor, and doesn’t get it.
A Politico story this week accused Band of reaching out to Abedin in 2009 to get Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain a meeting with Clinton. Now, Bahrain is a close US ally, and home to the Navy’s Sixth Fleet, so there’s nothing unusual about this ask, either, but it’s the kind of thing that should go through official channels — which it did. Abedin responded by telling Band “the crown prince had asked to see Clinton through ‘normal channels’ ” but that she hadn’t yet committed “until she knows how she will feel.” Two days later, Abeden e-mails Band back to say the meeting is now on.
With or without Band’s assistance, Clinton almost certainly would have agreed to meet with a top official of a US ally, especially in a region critical to national security interests, and at a time when Iran, a neighbor of Bahrain, was in the throes of pro-democracy demonstrations. There’s no evidence that Band’s e-mail tipped the balance.
Okay, so these examples disappoint, but what about this tantalizing lede from The Washington Post Tuesday: “A sports executive who was a major donor to the Clinton Foundation . . . wanted help getting a visa for a British soccer player with a criminal past.” And then this: “U2 rocker and philanthropist Bono, also a regular at foundation events, wanted high-level help broadcasting a live link to the International Space Station during concerts.” Deeper in the story we find out, neither was helped by Abedin, who responded “no clue” when asked about Bono’s odd request.
Finally, there is this: “Democratic donor and activist Joyce Aboussie of St. Louis wrote to Abedin requesting a meeting between Clinton and a top executive of St. Louis-based Peabody Energy.” According to the Post, “It is not clear whether the meeting took place.”
The scandal here seems to be that people who gave money to the Clinton Foundation had e-mails sent to the Clinton State Department requesting favors that were repeatedly denied. Still, evidence has never been the key ingredient of a Clinton scandal. Optics and the appearance of scandal are always where the action has been.
The recent e-mail revelations “illustrate the way the Clintons’ international network of friends and donors was able to get access to Hillary Clinton and her inner circle” says the Post. All this adds “to the controversy” about “major donors” to the foundation getting “access to other power players,” says Politico. Or, as shown by the evidence, not getting access.
Finally, there was this from a New York Times story about how the Foundation bedevils Clinton’s campaign. In reference to a uranium deal with a Russian company, which has previously been raised as an example of possible wrongdoing, “There was no evidence that Mrs. Clinton had exerted influence over the deal, but the timing of the transaction and the donations raised questions about whether the donors had received favorable handling.”
That those questions were raised and answered in a way that exonerated Mrs. Clinton is seemingly secondary to the fact that questions had been raised. Even when cleared of wrongdoing, the Clintons cannot escape the ever-creeping shadow of the dark insinuations of their political enemies.
The Clintons are, of course, not above scrutiny. There are more than a few legitimate areas of investigation in Hillary Clinton’s past — her support for the Iraq War, the US intervention in Libya, and her general history of foreign policy hawkishness. Her tenure as secretary of state and New York senator are ripe for focus, as are the promises she made – and failed to deliver on — when she first ran for that office. She doesn’t merit any less investigation because of the odiousness of her Republican rival.
Moreover, the suggestion made last week by the Globe’s editorial board that the Clintons should wind down the Clinton Foundation if she prevails in November is correct. There is too much risk of the appearance of conflict of interest between the Clinton’s charitable work and the responsibilities that come with being president. But such a decision shouldn’t mask the fact that the foundation has done extraordinary work as a philanthropic organization, from renegotiating the cost of HIV drugs to reducing childhood obesity to mitigating the impact of climate change. That’s the real story of the Clinton Foundation, not spurious and evidence-free allegations that donations to the foundation gave donors special access to State Department officials or preferential treatment.
Clinton is running for president and thus merits the scrutiny she is receiving. But the American people deserve an investigation into her record that separates fact from fiction and relies on evidence, not innuendo. So far, that’s not happening.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.