The Clinton Foundation defended lifting its self-imposed ban on accepting foreign government donations on Wednesday, coming under scrutiny as Hillary Clinton is expected to run for president in the coming months.
During Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, the foundation banned all donations from foreign governments due to conflict of interest it would pose for the foundation and the Obama administration. Clinton stepped down as America’s top diplomat in early 2013 and the foundation began, once again, to collect donations from foreign governments like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
“The Clinton Foundation is a philanthropy, period,” Craig Minassian, the foundation spokesman, said in a statement. “As with other global charities, the Clinton Foundation receives the support of individuals, organizations and governments from all over the world because our programs are improving the lives of millions of people.”
Minassian also noted that the foundation – which has raised just under $2 billion since its creation in 2001, according to the Washington Post – has “strong donor integrity and transparency practices that go above and beyond what is required of U.S. charities,” including posting all donations to the foundation website.
“The bottom line: these contributions are helping improve the lives of millions of people across the world for which we are grateful,” he concluded.
The increase in foreign government donations was first highlighted by the Wall Street Journal, who combed through tax returns and online database and found the foundation was “winning [foreign] contributions at an accelerating rate.”
Donations for the foundation, in general, have gone up considerably since Clinton left the State Department. According to tax documents, donations to the foundation in 2013 were $144.4 million, compared to $51.5 million in 2012, a three-fold increase.
One reason for this increase is Dennis Cheng, the Clinton Foundation’s chief development officer who led an aggressive campaign to boost the foundation’s endowment in his four years at the organization.
Cheng, who raised $248 million during that time, left the organization earlier this month to join Hillary Clinton’s nascent pre-campaign and is slated to serve as Clinton’s finance director once the campaign officially kicks off. He had been working to build Clinton’s campaign finance team while still working at the foundation, according to a source.
The Washington Post later noted that there was “substantial overlap between the Clinton political machinery and the foundation.”
Both the foreign government influence and prevalence of longtime Clinton supporters is clearly on display every year at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City. Foreign governments are well represented on the meeting’s guest lists, as well as longtime Clinton backers, aides and friends.
And while the foreign donations aren’t illegal, the optics for someone who is likely going run for president in the coming months could be troublesome. Even some Clinton fans have been squeamish about the donations since they were revealed, wishing that in the run up to the former first lady’s presidential run the practice would be stopped.
Republicans, too, have jumped on board the story, using it to question the Clinton’s ethics and whether, as president, she would give preferential treatment to countries that have donated to the foundation.
“Looks like voters would have to worry about a lot more than the Lincoln Bedroom being for sale if Hillary Clinton were president,” said Michael Short, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “how can anyone believe she won’t be influenced by the huge sums of cash once again being sent her way from governments all over the world? Is this who voters want taking that 3am phone call?”
America Rising, an anti-Clinton super PAC, called on the foundation to return all foreign donations.
Foundation representatives have not yet directly outlined how the organization will respond to the likelihood that Hillary Clinton runs for president.
During the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in 2014, one aide said that if Clinton “hypothetically” ran for president, it would make sense that “the best precedent may be history” – meaning they would do something similar to when she got nominated as secretary of state.
They organization reiterated that pledge in a statement posted to their website on Thursday.
“Should Secretary Clinton decide to run for office,” the unsigned statement read, “we will continue to ensure the foundation’s policies and practices regarding support from international partners are appropriate, just as we did when she served as secretary of state.”
Bill Clinton, however, has made it clear that he wants to continue his foundation work.
“This is my life now, this foundation,” Clinton told CNN in 2014. “And I have poured my heart into it for 14 years… It’s my life now.”