When Is a Scandal Really a Scandal?

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The crown prince of Bahrain gives millions of dollars to a charitable organization that is run by the family foundation of the secretary of state. Later, he asks for a meeting with the secretary of state, through both formal and informal channels. He gets it.

Is this proof of illegal influence peddling, or just how the intermingling worlds of politics and philanthropy work? And at what point does the difference between an apparent conflict of interest and an actual conflict cease to matter?

Craig Minassian, a spokesman for the Clinton Foundation, acknowledged that recent reports on how the foundation operated while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state have led to “perception issues.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” he added, then laughed.

The Clinton Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded by former President Bill Clinton in 2001, after he left the White House. It brings in money through fund-raising, which it spends on its programs in other countries. Since 2000, the Clinton Foundation has brought in more than $2 billion in donations. Representatives from at least 16 foreign governments have donated as much as $170 million to the foundation.

Last week, a newly published batch of emails detailed correspondence between the foundation and the State Department when Mrs. Clinton was in office as secretary of state. Critics have claimed that the emails are evidence of wealthy donors — among them foreign citizens — requesting favors from the State Department, including private meetings with Mrs. Clinton.

The Associated Press reported, based on analysis of these emails, that “at least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs.” The report also dug up email exchanges which seemed to suggest that people who had donated to the foundation received access to the State Department in return.

One specific exchange the report highlighted: Douglas J. Band, a Clinton Foundation executive, reached out on behalf of Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain — who had given $32 million to the Clinton Global Initiative for a Bahraini education program — and was granted a meeting with Mrs. Clinton.

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The Clinton campaign, and others, criticized the Associated Press story, saying that Mrs. Clinton met with those 85 people because of their status as well-known global leaders, not because they gave money to her family’s foundation. Brian Fallon, a Clinton campaign spokesman, said Mrs. Clinton also had 1,700 meetings with world leaders during her time at the State Department — meaning that the 85 meetings she had with foundation donors made up 5 percent of her total meetings.

“I know there’s a lot of smoke, and there’s no fire,” Mrs. Clinton told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a recent interview.

That’s a hard sell for many voters. (To belabor the metaphor: Where, then, is the smoke coming from? A smoke machine?) For now, there is no visible conflagration. The Clinton family has never taken a salary from the foundation. The watchdog group Charity Watch awarded the foundation an A rating for its financial management. It’s hard to quarrel with the legitimate good works the foundation has done in the developing world.

But the foundation’s good works are a separate issue from donors’ links to Mrs. Clinton in her role representing the public. The rules that apply to private citizens are much different from the rules (written or unwritten) that we apply to presidential candidates. And sometimes, the simple suggestion of corruption can be as damaging as real corruption to a candidate’s reputation.

Earlier this month, the foundation announced that if Mrs. Clinton was elected, it would stop accepting money from foreign and corporate donors. The foundation would also spin off some of its programs to partner organizations — though which organizations remains unclear. And Mr. Clinton would step down from the foundation’s board, while Chelsea Clinton would remain on the board.

Lawrence M. Noble, the general counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said the Clintons had been “somewhat tone deaf” about how their relationship with donors would be perceived. Still, he said the focus on Mrs. Clinton’s meetings as secretary of state is a “distraction” from the real problems with our campaign finance system — a system that the Clintons and other politicians benefit handsomely from.

“The problem is that we’ve developed this culture in part thanks to the Supreme Court that seems to sanction the idea that donors will get special access,” he said. “As long as we see this potential influence, we’re not going to trust it, because it’s human nature that one is influenced by those who are trying to help them.”

It’s impossible to know what inspires a donor, in his heart of hearts, to give a large sum of money to an organization. But critics like The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald have argued that some donors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar — which have abysmal human rights records toward women and gay citizens — may have less-than-ideal intentions.

“It can be hard to know whether a donation is idealistic or transactional,” said David Callahan, who runs the website Inside Philanthropy. “That’s the tricky thing in all this.”

What’s true is that people have donated a lot of money to the Clinton Foundation. In 2014, the Carter Center raised $176 million in contributions and grants. During the same time period, the Clinton Foundation brought in $332 million in contributions and grants — nearly twice as much.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has jumped on the story, calling the Clinton Foundation “the most corrupt enterprise in political history” — while neglecting to mention that his own foundation has given at least $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation.

Mr. Trump’s interest in reforming campaign finance doesn’t seem to extend past his opponent, and while he has criticized unlimited spending in elections, his campaign hasn’t put forth any concrete policy proposals that would restrict political influence peddling.



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