Clinton makes her trust problem worse

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money, either personally or through companies or groups, to the Clinton Foundation.
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money, either personally or through companies or groups, to the Clinton Foundation. AP

Hillary Clinton enjoys about a five-point polling lead over Donald Trump. One way to look at this is that it’s a margin, at this stage of a presidential race, that is rarely reversed.

Here’s another way. The Democrats had a successful convention; the Republicans didn’t. Clinton’s campaign has been smooth; Trump’s has careened between disasters. She has reached out to independents and Republicans; he has insulted the family of a soldier killed in Iraq, along with people with disabilities, Latinos and women. Clinton has outspent him 3 to 1.

And she’s ahead by only five percentage points. The comparative closeness of the race underscores her problems.

Some of it reflects the polarization of American politics. But there also have been self-inflicted wounds that accentuate her struggle to win voters’ trust: the continuing controversy over her use of private e-mail while Secretary of State and potential conflicts involving the Clinton Foundation.

In this month’s Bloomberg Politics poll, 58 percent of voters said they were bothered “a lot” by potential conflicts involving the Clinton Foundation. And 53 percent felt that way about the e-mails.

She has exacerbated these problems in recent weeks. Last month, FBI director James Comey said there were no grounds to prosecute Clinton for using private e-mail, but called her “extremely careless” about handling sensitive information.

Yet Clintonland continues to rationalize. Clinton implied that Comey had declared that her response to the FBI and other public statements had been truthful. He didn’t; indeed he noted that while her testimony to the FBI was truthful, some of her public comments were not.

Politifact, the nonpartisan fact checker, assessed her claim to be totally false.

As Comey noted, no reputable prosecutor would have brought a case against the former secretary of State on this issue.

But since being cleared of legal liability, she has fudged and shuffled. She says she made a mistake and regrets it, but then equivocates or rationalizes. It’s counterproductive. She should cut her losses, turn over anything to appropriate authorities and move on.

On the Clinton Foundation, there are several realities. It has done fine work, saving lives. But by accepting contributions from foreign governments and wealthy interests at home, it creates the impression that favors are being traded. If she is elected, it will cast a shadow over the credibility of her presidency unless all family ties are severed.

Last week, Bill Clinton announced that if his wife wins, he will step aside from the foundation and it no longer will take foreign or corporate money. That still leaves open the possibility that their daughter, Chelsea, could run it and wealthy influence-seekers could donate.

At the same time, I spoke with a prominent Clinton insider, a person of integrity and high ethical standards. He said shutting the Clinton Foundation would hurt millions of people around the world and would be giving in to right-wing critics who will find something else to seize on.

I agree that right-wingers like Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — who seemed to grant himself a medical degree last week when he ludicrously diagnosed Clinton with health problems — will find something. Much of it will be phony.

That is no reason to give them ammunition.

If severing family connections would hurt beneficiaries of the foundation’s philanthropy, here’s a solution worth considering: Turn it over to the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter’s group, which also has done remarkable work.

(c) 2016, Bloomberg View