A few weeks ago, I had an argument with a former colleague from my days as a real-estate banker, who thought I was being too hard on Donald Trump.
I asked him whether he would extend a mortgage to Donald Trump. The mantra we were taught at Wells Fargo was “people, credit, real estate” — which is to say, you don’t make loans to people you don’t trust, even if they have strong finances and good property.
The obvious answer to that question is no, you don’t give Trump a mortgage. Indeed, as BuzzFeed reported last month, Trump’s difficulty getting access to credit from regular banks may be why he was so interested, some years back, in doing a business deal with Muammar Gaddafi.
Similarly, I believe trust is a deal-breaker with Trump the politician, and you can’t vote for him even if you agree with his stated policy positions.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I wouldn’t give a mortgage to Hillary Clinton, either.
At a bank, if you have mortgage applications from two unsuitable borrowers, you can reject both of them. Elections don’t work like that. And in November, I’m going to be tasked with choosing between two candidates who fail my loan test.
That doesn’t mean the vote choice is close or difficult for me. As I have written before, Trump poses unacceptable tail risks to the country. I would be less uncomfortable extending a mortgage to Clinton than to Trump, and I would be much less uncomfortable with her as president than with him.
But I get why so many voters look at these two candidates and say they can’t trust either. And I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I am by the latest polling, which shows Clinton’s numbers softening. In the CBS/New York Times poll out Thursday, which has the race tied at 40-40, 67% of respondents saying they do not find Clinton honest and trustworthy.
Back in May, I wrote that I’d believe the presidential election was close to tied if the polls still showed it close to tied on July 1.
They didn’t, but now they do. Something has changed. It was her damn emails.
Clinton’s “favourable” and “honest and trustworthy” numbers have worsened since FBI Director James Comey’s characterization that she had been “extremely careless” in handling her email server, even though he was in no position to indict her.
It’s far from the first time the Clintons have put voters in the position of deciding how much we’re going to care about a decision that wasn’t indictable but that does cast doubt on their transparency and their willingness to be bound by the spirit of rules.
Over the decades, Bill and Hillary Clinton — and I talk about them as a unit because they have built a shared organisation for politics, business and influence over four decades; they are, as Bill put it in 1992, “two for the price of one” — have masterfully built and leveraged systems of influence.
In theory, they direct their politics, business and influence organisation broadly toward making the world a better place, and they (almost always) stay within the letter of the law along the way. They are not terribly concerned about appearances of impropriety.
Buying into this model necessarily entails putting a lot of trust in the Clintons’ good intentions. I don’t think it’s crazy to do so — both Bill and Hillary Clinton have long track records in government that can be evaluated directly, and a lot of people are happy with the results they have generated. The economy did very well in the 1990s. If you like policies in line with the mainstream of thought in the Democratic Party, the Clintons have mostly served you quite well.
But as the business and influence organisation that surrounds the Clintons has grown more sprawling over the years, and as ordinary people have grown more dissatisfied by the economic results generated policies favoured by the sort of elites that gather at the Clinton Global Initiative, it has become tougher to argue that voters should look past the Clintons’ odd finance and influence arrangements.
Consider, for example, the Clinton Foundation.
Clinton supporters will note that the Clintons’ philanthropic efforts have generated billions of dollars in spending on initiatives that have improved public health and changed the world for the better. Their detractors will argue that the Foundation and related initiatives serve to grow the Clintons’ profile and influence, and provide a useful financial conduit for wealthy people, institutions and countries that would like to seek favour and access from the Clintons — with an eye toward the fact that one of them might again be president.
These descriptions of the foundation are not at all in conflict with each other.
In fact, they dovetail: If the foundation didn’t do lots of genuinely excellent philanthropic work, donors seeking influence would have no good public explanation for why they write checks to it. As Alec MacGillis wrote for The New Republic back in 2013:
Bill Clinton now leads a sprawling philanthropic empire like no other. The good it achieves is undeniable. It has formed partnerships with multinationals and wealthy individuals to distribute billions of dollars all over the globe. Its many innovative projects include efforts to lower the costs of medicines in developing nations and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in major cities. And yet it’s hard to shake the sense that it’s not all about saving the world. There’s an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners, the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity.
The Foundation, like so much about the Clintons, then becomes a Rohrschach test: Is it mostly an example of the Clintons astutely working their insider connections to serve good ends? Or is it mostly an example of the Clintons being hopelessly conflicted and subject to undue influence by moneyed elites?
I am genuinely unsure how bothered we should be by the story of Doug Band, the man who got rich by going from the Clinton White House to the foundation to his own consulting firm, Teneo Group. The firm’s initial business model seemed to be collecting fees from people seeking access to the former president, often the same people who had been writing checks to the foundation.
Should we worry about what people got in exchange for their payments to Teneo? This is one of many questions we have to worry about with Clintonworld that would not come up with most political organisations.
Many politicians cash out after their government careers, but most presidential candidates are not trying to re-enter government after collecting big speaking fees from businesses that they would then return to regulating.
Most presidential candidates have not had their top aides in government simultaneously on private payrolls doing jobs where they negotiated with foreign entities also dealing with the government.
Most presidential candidates have not gotten freelance foreign intelligence from an ex-aide paid by various philanthropic and political organisations associated with her, who had to be in such a freelance role because the White House had banished him as too toxic to serve directly in the government.
It is fair to look at all these uncomfortable situations, sigh, and conclude that the webs of influence surrounding the Clintons are not a deal-breaker — that, in the end, Hillary Clinton will be a similar president to Barack Obama, implementing a similar ideological agenda that won’t be materially changed by these influences.
In fact, I’d say that’s not only fair, but probably the correct conclusion to draw.
But I also understand why voters look at this whole situation with great hesitation and scepticism, and why so many are not prepared to trust a candidate with so many apparent conflicts of interest, and who reacts dismissively to inquiries into such conflicts.
Nor would we have to ask why most presidential candidates chose to host their official email on a private home server, an action that interfered with the disclosure of public records, and a choice Clinton still has not satisfactorily explained.
I have my own theory: Clinton feared giving the State Department control over her records could lead to a disclosure of emails she considered to be unrelated to official government business.
On one level, this would be a reasonable concern: Clinton’s emails not about the government are not public records, and she is entitled to keep them private. The problem is that, because of the web of influence organisations that surround the Clintons, many of which interact with the same entities as the State Department, reasonable people might disagree about which of Clinton’s activities were non-government activities.
Again, this is the sort of thing we should not ordinarily have to worry about when selecting a president.
Like many of you, I am deeply unhappy about the election we are having. I wake up in the morning and want to scream into my pillow. I wish I could move to Earth-2, where Joe Biden is in a neck-and-neck race with John Kasich.
Here on real earth, I think Clinton will win, but I’m afraid she will find a way to lose, and I’m worried that if she does win her administration could discredit valuable institutions by failing while creating all sorts of appearances of conflict of interest.
This campaign has not been good for the country, and voters know it. More than six in 10 respondents in the NYT/CBS poll said they were not looking forward to the rest of the election campaign.
I’m with them.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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