Presidential candidates are running to lead a country. How the candidates run their own charitable operations offers insight on how they lead.
The Clinton Foundation, in its own words, sounds like a leader and a winner. It exists to build “partnerships of great purpose between businesses, governments, NGOs and individuals to work faster, better and leaner; to find solutions that last; and to transform lives and communities from what they are today to what they can be, tomorrow.”
Like most charities, the organization — led in part by former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton and formerly known as the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation when Clinton herself was directly involved — must file annual reports with the IRS detailing its finances.
It’s done that, and more. In December 2008, as Hillary Clinton was poised to become secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding requiring it to name its contributors.
On paper, the arrangement represents an “unusual” level of transparency among charitable initiatives, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
But, as The Hill recently noted, the Clinton Foundation has repeatedly stumbled with transparency — hardly an insignificant issue for the free world’s leader.
The foundation failed to reveal hundreds of donors to a Canadian affiliate, slow-walked other disclosures and provided donation figures in broad ranges, making it impossible to determine how much money a litany of questionable donors — foreign governments, included — have given.
While Charity Navigator this month gave the Clinton Foundation its highest rating for operational strength and transparency, the nonprofit watchdog organization last year placed the foundation on a “watch list” — a move prompting significant blowback from Clintonworld.
Meanwhile, Clinton is facing endless attacks from conservatives who consider the Clinton Foundation a pay-to-play monstrosity — author and activist Peter Schweizer wrote a 256-page book, “Clinton Cash,” about it. Write the Clintons a big check, get access to Bill and Hillary, the criticism goes. Even liberals such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have questioned Clinton.
“The illegality of the Clinton Foundation has left it woefully unpopular among voters,” the Trump campaign said in an Aug. 25 statement, citing a Morning Consult poll.
“Secretary Clinton, the other day your campaign said that voters who are concerned about the ethics surrounding the Clinton Foundation should not vote for you. Do you agree?” Trump spokesman Jason Miller asked three days later, pointing to an MSNBC interview with a Clinton spokesman.
Blunting Trump’s criticism is the fact that his foundation gave $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation years ago. (Trump defended the donation to Fox News, saying, “The Clinton Foundation was helping with Haiti and with lots of other things, and I thought it was going to do some good work. So, it didn't make any difference to me.”)
Trump’s Donald J. Trump Foundation — a much smaller charity that in 2014 doled out less than $600,000 in grants, according to tax returns — has its own problems.
One big problem in particular: The Donald J. Trump Foundation straight up broke federal tax laws in 2013 when it illegally pumped money into a political organization supporting Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general. Charitable nonprofits are prohibited from making such political contributions.
The $25,000 donation to a pro-Bondi political group — the latest campaign finance-related trouble Trump has faced — came six days after a Bondi spokeswoman said Bondi’s office was “reviewing” allegations against Trump University, Trump’s for-profit program that offered courses in real estate investments. Critics have lambasted the program as a “scam,” “scheme,” “fraud” and “lie.”
Bondi’s office never pursued the Trump University matter.
After the IRS flagged the illegal donation, the Donald J. Trump Foundation coughed up a $2,500 penalty to placate the tax man.
"It was just an honest mistake," Jeffrey McConney, president and controller at the Trump Organization, told the Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold. "It wasn’t done intentionally to hide a political donation, it was just an error."
Bill Clinton, speaking this month to a crowd in Orlando, disagreed.
"My charity helps people,” he said. “His is used to pay off your attorney general.”
This follows a damning report by the Washington Post that casts doubt on Trump’s claims of charity. Trump’s campaign refuses to provide documentation, including tax returns, detailing or verifying his charitable contributions.
“He makes contributions personally, and there’s no way for you to know or understand what those gifts are or when they are made,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told BuzzFeed.
CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Tuesday asked Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, whether Trump would detail how much he’s given to charity.
“I doubt it,” Conway replied. “This is like badgering. I don't see it as journalism, I see it as badgering.”
And this weekend, the Washington Post published a scathing report explaining how Trump has taken credit for charitable activity funded by other donors to his foundation.
The verdict: Politically speaking, there are no winners here. Both foundations are different in size and service, but neither Clinton nor Trump have done themselves election season favors this year through their charitable operations.
Regardless of what good the Clinton Foundation is doing and has done, it has grown into a massive albatross for Clinton. USA Today, the Boston Globe, Huffington Post — hardly Trump train passengers — have either called on the Clinton Foundation to curtain its fundraising or shut down altogether.
Trump, meanwhile, faces continued fallout from his charity’s illegal political contribution: A Democratic organization has filed a complaint against the foundation with the U.S. Department of Justice, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is opening an inquiry into the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
On balance, Trump has this election been less transparent about his philanthropy — to the extent he’s genuinely philanthropic — than Clinton has been. If Trump is generous with his money, he’s not offering much evidence of it.