It’s a mistake for the Clinton campaign to write off conservative author Peter Schweizer as a right-wing hack. It won’t work, and it’s not true. If he were as off-base as the campaign and its allies portray him, would a high-quality publication like The New York Times risk its reputation by partnering with him? And would Common Cause, the gold standard for good-government groups, which is currently chaired by former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, be calling for an independent review that would be made public of all large donations to the Clinton Foundation?
The Clintons have a standard template for pushing back, and they’re going to use it to make questions about their finances seem part of the vast right-wing conspiracy, but character assassination only goes so far. It may work for a while, but if the data in Schweizer’s upcoming book, Clinton Cash, survives the vetting it will get from the mainstream media, Clinton will have to clean up her act. Aside from actual wrongdoing, and there’s no evidence of that, this is about the appearance of conflicts of interest, and in politics, appearances are everything.
The most damaging concerns have to do with foreign money seeping into the Clinton family foundation and whether any of that money found its way to her campaign. Should she become president, would these foreign friends that have enriched the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons themselves through exorbitant speaking fees receive preferential treatment?
“If I were a foreign government, I know which horse I would back,” says Craig Holman, public affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. Holman was on Capitol Hill in 2011 promoting legislation to ban insider trading by members of Congress when he got a call from 60 Minutes producer Ira Rosen looking for a story. The Stock Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) only had nine sponsors, but Rosen picked up on it and, as Holman related the story to The Daily Beast, 60 Minutes partnered with Schweizer. Six months later the show aired a blockbuster story accusing Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republicans John Boehner and Spencer Baucus, who chaired the House Financial Services Committee, of profiting from financial trades based on insider information they had access to as members of Congress.
Overnight, the Stock Act had 270 sponsors after languishing for years in multiple Congresses after Democrat Louise Slaughter first introduced it in 2006. “It was like paper clips to a magnet,” recalls Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause. Five months after the 60 Minutes report, President Obama signed the Stock Act into law, praising the legislation as “a good and necessary thing,” and saying, “We were sent here to serve the American people and look out for their interests—not to look out for our own interests.”
Schweizer’s book, Throw Them All Out, was the centerpiece of the 60 Minutes exposé. He was quoted at the time saying, “It’s not about the money, it’s about a sense of entitlement,” politicians feeling the rules don’t apply to them—the same arguments he’s making in his examination of the Clintons and their intertwined financial interests.
The politicians singled out by Schweizer pushed back hard and there were lots of disputes about whether he had his facts right. Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman, countered every allegation and called it “troubling that 60 Minutes would base their reporting off of an already-discredited conservative author who has made a career out of attacking Democrats.”
Even so, the good-government community was cheering. A bill that would otherwise never have passed breezed through both houses of Congress. With inside information the coin of the realm on Capitol Hill, the Stock Act made it clear that staffers and members could not use this knowledge to trade and enrich themselves. Schweizer found enough individual examples that the bill took off “and that’s a feather in his cap,” says Spaulding.
Despite his conservative bona fides—he was a speechwriter in George W. Bush’s administration, and helped tutor Sarah Palin on foreign policy when she ran for vice president—Schweizer is an equal-opportunity investigator, snaring Republicans as well as Democrats. He’s reportedly planning a sequel to Clinton Cash with a similar exposé of Bush cash that will focus on the business deals that Jeb Bush busied himself with since leaving the Florida governor’s office almost a decade ago. “His research is very credible,” says Holman with Public Citizen. “It can’t be ignored because of partisanship.”
When Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in her confirmation hearing to become secretary of state, lawmakers flagged her husband’s foundation and its prodigious fundraising as a potential conflict of interest. This is a new kind of conundrum, a former president whose spouse and foundation raise all kinds of money on the way to the White House.
“Clinton needs to be clear and careful,” says Spaulding. While no one is alleging illegality, there are legitimate questions about appearances that if Clinton does not adequately address will have the effect of further weakening citizens’ faith in their government, and in her capacity as a leader. In every crisis, there is opportunity. Recognizing what a conservative critic has to say and not necessarily why he says it would be a good beginning.