House Democrats endorse former President Clinton’s paid speeches

House Democrats endorse former President Clinton’s paid speeches

House Democrats say there’s nothing wrong with Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris lead Trump in Georgia: Poll Keep your eye on essential facts in the unfolding impeachment circus MORE getting paid to give speeches while Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE runs for president.

Critics of the speeches, including former Clinton administration official Robert Reich and others, are a distraction, say the Democrats, who argue that voters don’t care how the former president makes his money.

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“I just don’t think that Americans cast their vote for or against Hillary Clinton based on whether Bill Clinton is giving speeches,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), a former House Democratic campaign chief.

“I respect Robert Reich,” Israel added. I don’t believe it’s ever a good idea for Democrats to be creating distractions, and that’s just a distraction.”

Reich, who served as Labor secretary under Clinton, has suggested the speeches could pose a conflict of interest for the Clintons, but most House Democrats don’t see it that way.

“People have a right to earn a living,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). “If I had a spouse that did a particular kind of job, I’d be disappointed that people would think that I just bought into everything my spouse’s employers were saying or doing.”

“I think Bill should go out there, and if he has a little bit of wisdom he can share as a former president, as a former good president, I think he ought to share it,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). “If people are willing to pay for his advice and services, I think he has every right to do that.”

The Hill asked a dozen House Democrats whether they believe Bill Clinton should stop giving the paid speeches. The overwhelming response was that there is no problem.

“Look at what they’ve done,” said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas). “Everything I’ve seen they spent money on was for things that were really good: for Haiti, Africa, you name it.”

Money for Clinton’s appearances goes to the Clinton Foundation, which supports a range of charitable initiatives around the world. The speeches have also enriched the couple.

The Clintons often charge more than $200,000 per speech, and they earned about $30 million over the last 16 months, according to financial disclosures filed with election officials in May. The bulk of that money came from paid speeches at home and abroad to business leaders, political leaders and outside industry groups. 

Hillary Clinton stopped giving paid speeches in March as she ramped up for a presidential run, but Bill Clinton continues to profit from the speaking engagements. He has said he’ll most likely stop giving paid speeches if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.

Asked in early May about whether he’d keep giving the speeches, the former president said: “I gotta pay our bills.”

Stories about the speeches, the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State have dogged the Democratic candidate for much of the year.

A recent CNN/ORC poll found 57 percent of Americans don’t consider Hillary Clinton to be honest or trustworthy.

Democratic lawmakers blamed the media and Republicans for obsessing over the issue and argued it will have no bearing on the presidential race.

“The way that the media and the other side have been focusing on attacking Hillary on a regular basis — if it’s not this, it’s just going to be something else,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).

For many Democratic lawmakers, such as Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Bill Clinton’s statement that he may stop giving the paid speeches if Hillary Clinton wins the White House race was sufficient to address any concerns. 

Cohen said the Clintons possess unmatched political skills, and Democrats can rest easy with whatever campaign calculations they make.

“I don’t think I could give Bill Clinton any strategic advice,” he said. “He’s pretty strategic.”

The Hill found only one Democrat willing to side with Reich on the issue of paid speeches. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said that, while there’s been no evidence of impropriety, the issue “detracts from her ability to get her message out.”

“The fee-for-service stuff has to stop,” Grijalva said. “The debate has not been about the issues, it’s been about the Clintons and the foundation and the emails. This campaign needs to be substantive. The debate between Republicans and Democrats has to be substantive. Anything that detracts, and at this point those fees are a detraction, doesn’t help our cause.”

Some Democrats say the dearth of House lawmakers willing to criticize the Clintons might stem from the fear of taking on a political dynasty with a history of political retribution. 

In 2008, the Clintons kept a “hit list” of politicians who betrayed them by backing then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

“Let’s face it, the Clintons keep score,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “A lot of people in Washington are probably scared to death of the Clintons, and they probably have a good right to be.”

But Democratic lawmakers largely sounded fed up with a controversy they believe the media and Republicans have concocted, and that they say has long passed its sell-by date.

“Bill Clinton is not running for president; Hillary Clinton is,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said. “Whether it’s controversy about the foundation that does a lot of good work or him making speeches, there’s a difference between these two people, and personally, I just don’t see it as an issue.”