Storm gathers around Clinton finances

The financial portfolio of Hillary Clinton, her family and the Clinton Foundation is under new scrutiny, worrying some Democrats, as the former secretary of State begins her 2016 campaign.

The New York Times fired the starting pistol on another round of stories about the Clinton finances with a story on Monday morning describing a forthcoming book, Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweizer, a fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution.

The Times called the tome “the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy.”

The book’s allegations were summed up in the author’s own words: “We will see a pattern of financial transactions involving the Clintons that occurred contemporaneous with favorable U.S. policy decisions benefitting those providing the funds.”

Allies to the newly announced Democratic presidential hopeful immediately pushed back on the book, but that has not settled nerves within the party.

“Where the unease comes from is that it’s going to be one of those things that the right keeps hammering them on,” one Democratic consultant who wished to remain anonymous said, referring to donations to the Clinton Foundation. “It is one of the things that they are going to have to address sooner or later — preferably sooner.”

The consultant, who is not affiliated with any of the politicians likely to challenge Clinton for the nomination, stressed that there was no evidence the foundation had engaged in shady practices.

The worry, instead, was that the former first lady would get distracted from her preferred subjects by having to respond to the allegations, only weeks after she was in the eye of a storm about her use of a private email server while secretary of State.

The sheer sums of money involved seem sure to garner significant attention.

According to the Times’ account, the book includes details of $1 million in payments to former President Clinton by a Canadian bank and major shareholder in the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline project, around the time that Keystone was under discussion at the State Department. The book also notes that the biggest payments for speeches delivered by the former president came during his wife’s tenure at Foggy Bottom.

“Of the 13 Clinton speeches that fetched $500,000 or more, only two occurred during the years his wife was not secretary of State,” the book reportedly states.

This is not the first time that Clinton’s finances have pushed her off message. Last year, the publicity drive for her memoir Hard Choices became a damage-limitation exercise, after she said she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House in early 2001.

Independent observers also warned about the new allegations’ capacity to divert the campaign.

“I think it is potentially problematic,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College who has written about wealth and the presidency. “The problems that Hillary has had in the past, dating back to Whitewater, were similar accusations of using her position for personal gain. … Even if there is only smoke and no fire, it still takes a lot to clear the smoke. She is going to have to spend time talking about this.”

That happened later on Monday, when Clinton briefly addressed the topic during a campaign visit to New Hampshire.

“It’s worth noting that Republicans seem to only be talking about me,” she said during a visit to a maker of educational furniture in Keene, N.H. “I don’t know what they’d talk about if I weren’t in the race.”

She went on to say that “distractions and attacks” were an inevitable part of political campaigning, adding, “I’m ready for that.”

Correct the Record, a group whose remit revolves around defending Clinton from media criticisms, released a statement calling the impending release “a work of fiction … a political hatchet job masquerading as a book.”

The group went on to note Schweizer’s background as a speechwriting consultant to President George W. Bush, as well as a foreign policy adviser to 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

But it is far from clear that the counterattack will nip the story in the bud. The New York Times report stated Schweizer “writes mainly in the voice of a neutral journalist and meticulously documents his sources … while leaving little doubt about his view of the Clintons.”

The story also indicated several other news organization, including The Washington Post, Fox News and the Times had deals with the author to report out some of the details in the book, which is not set to be published until May 5.

The White House, meanwhile, sought to tamp down the story, with press secretary Josh Earnest asserting that the Clinton Foundation was “doing excellent work all across the world” and that President Obama was “incredibly proud” of Hillary Clinton’s record at the State Department.

The press secretary noted that, when it comes to suggestions of malfeasance, there had been “a lot of allegations made about this but not a lot of evidence.”

Conservatives seized on the final part of that remark to suggest Earnest was admitting there was some evidence. That might not have been his intended meaning, but the intense parsing of his words was just one more sign that the controversy looks likely to gather steam.

Republican strategists insisted to The Hill that the matter of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, and the Clintons’ wealth more broadly, was a serious problem for a candidate who has been trying to cast herself as a champion of “everyday Americans.”

“The more information comes out, like in this book, about how much the Clintons are making by benefitting from their public service, the more it drives a wedge between Hillary Clinton and the middle-class voters she is trying to appeal to,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide.

“This gets to the heart of the problem with both the Clintons, and not just for conservatives or Republicans — Democrats have shared the same concern with me as well,” said conservative consultant Keith Appell. “They’ve just paid lip service to the left while lining their pockets and getting filthy rich off the seedy side of Washington.”

But the Democratic consultant who had expressed concern about the new allegations also took a wry view of GOP attacks on a candidate on the basis of her wealth.

“I’m pretty sure that there aren’t many of the Republican candidates who I would consider paupers,” the consultant said.

— Jordan Fabian contributed.

Tags Hillary Clinton

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