Errol Louis: Trump's speech on Clinton Wednesday could obscure valid criticisms with its over-the-top conspiracy theorizing
He says there have indeed been questionable practices linked to Secretary' Clinton's connection with Clinton Foundation
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly described the relationship between the Clinton Global Initiative and Energy Pioneer Solutions. The company did not commit $2 million to the Clinton Global Initiative; CGI helped arrange the commitment of $2 million from another party to Energy Pioneer Solutions, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Donald Trump’s much-anticipated speech attacking Hillary Clinton Wednesday seemed more designed to reassure the candidate’s Republican base than to broaden his appeal to independents or Democrats.
The fact is Trump raised valid questions about Clinton’s foreign policy positions, fund-raising practices and email quandary – but he did so in his vintage over-the-top fashion, with so many personal insults that many will ignore or forget the substance of his criticism.
For example, it’s one thing to question the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and quite another to leap to Trump’s overheated conclusion: “The Hillary Clinton foreign policy has cost America thousands of lives and trillions of dollars – and unleashed ISIS across the world. No secretary of state has been more wrong, more often, and in more places than Hillary Clinton. Her decisions spread death, destruction and terrorism everywhere she touched.”
Everywhere? The statement cries out for a more substantive debate about Clinton’s support for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden; the temporary ceasefire she negotiated between Hamas and Israel; and the Iran nuclear deal.
But Trump’s speech wasn’t about debating policy points, it was an all-out trashing of Clinton designed to rally conservatives, predictably veered off the road from justifiable concerns into unfounded conspiracy theories.
Indeed, Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state, and donations to the Clinton Foundation raise important questions about potential conflicts of interest that the campaign has not fully answered.
But that’s a long way from stating, as Trump did, that “to cover-up her corrupt dealings, Hillary Clinton illegally stashed her State Department emails on a private server,” or that “While we may not know what is in those deleted emails, our enemies probably do. So they probably now have a blackmail file over someone who wants to be President of the United States.”
A more rational reading of Trump’s accusations would have to acknowledge that Trump’s repeated assertion that Clinton belongs behind bars is just false – and Republicans know it. Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post earlier this spring that many of the emails deemed “classified” were only done so by intelligence agencies after they were sent. Because she didn’t knowingly and intentionally send state secrets on an unsecure server, there isn’t really much of a case to lead her away in handcuffs to a federal courtroom.
As for the substance of the 296 emails rolled out by the State Department last May, roughly a dozen were from Sidney Blumenthal - a writer, lobbyist and longtime Clinton ally - sent to Clinton’s email account during her time as top diplomat, and they have also raised eyebrows.
Blumenthal was barred from working for the State Department in 2009 because he regularly blasted Barack Obama during the 2008 election. But that didn’t stop him from regularly lobbying Clinton with information about who could head a new government in Libya, suggestions that she recirculated to her staff, according to reporting from the New York Times.
Blumenthal’s communications with Clinton raised a string of ethical questions. He represented a company looking to land contracts in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, and The New York Times reported he was being paid by The Clinton Foundation.
And Bill Clinton’s non-profit has been a headache for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The Clinton Foundation has pulled in millions from foreign nationals, has suffered from embarrassing security lapses.
The New York Times reported in April 2015 that the non-profit took in money from a Canadian group of investors that was in the process of selling off its shares of a uranium company to Russia. The company’s chairman gave $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation through his own family foundation, in four donations, as the firm, Uranium One, was sold to Russian officials between 2009 and 2013.
Then Secretary of State Clinton had to sign off on the sale. The Clintons didn’t disclose those donations – an apparent departure from an agreement she had made with Obama to do so, according to the Times report.
That’s just one of several questionable relationships between the Clintons and donors.
The Clinton Global Initiative, a tax-exempt charitable organization (and spinoff of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation), in 2010 helped arrange a $2 million commitment from a Canadian businesswoman and CGI member to invest in a for-profit company owned by Clinton friends, according to a Wall Street Journal article last month. That year, Bill Clinton lobbied then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu for a grant; the Department of Energy gave the company an $812,000 grant, the article said.
Then there’s the story of Rajiv K. Fernando, a Chicago-based securities trader who was a fundraiser and donor to The Clinton Foundation. Fernando wound up getting himself a seat on the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board – giving him access to highly classified materials – despite the fact that he didn’t have any background in foreign affairs, ABC News reported last week.
Other board members started to become concerned in 2011 when Fernando didn’t seem to know anything about nuclear security and one member told ABC: “We had no idea who he was.”
Clinton officials have tried to dodge some of these questionable donations and suggestions as to what those contributions might have purchased. But voters deserve to question the schmoozing and fundraising that gets spun into nothing more than a mix up.
So Trump has good, valid reasons to warn voters about Clinton’s record. But unfounded suggestions that she could be blackmailed go a step too far. So does Trump’s assertion in his speech that “Though I was not in government service, I was among the earliest to criticize the rush to war, and yes, even before the war ever started.”
What’s left is the kind of red-meat, anti-Clinton bombast Trump has been serving up from the podium for a year now. Clinton-haters love it, but it’s hard to see how it will change minds in the swing states likely to settle the election in November.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.