How much would one pay for control of a mighty nation? Unfortunately, that questions has become depressingly relevant in this election cycle – and it has nothing to do with campaign finance issues.
In the classic film The Fall of the Roman Empire, filmmakers depicted the inflection point of the decline after the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “good emperors.” In the fictional account, Livius fights Commodus to the death in an attempt to rescue the empire from its corruption. By the time he does, though, he realizes there’s nothing left to save. As he walks away from power, others begin openly bidding to seize the mantle. “One million denarii for the throne of Rome!” yells one, followed by “two million denarii!” from another, and so on.
“This was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire,” the narrator intones gravely as the camera pulls out to a wide shot. “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Well, now we know the feeling. And thanks to a new batch of e-mails released by the State Department from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, we have a good idea of the bidding, too. The odds of it affecting the outcome of this election, however, might be too small to calculate.
An Associated Press review of State Department and Clinton Foundation records produced what the Clinton campaign insists was nothing more than a coincidence. More than half of Secretary Clinton’s official State Department meetings or conversations, outside of government officials, turned out to be Clinton Foundation donors.
“At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs,” Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan reported. Combined, the eighty-five donors provided $156 million to the group, forty of whom gave $100,000 or more. Those contacts do not include another 16 representatives of foreign governments who donated $170 million more, they note, “because such meetings would presumably have been part of her diplomatic duties.”
Related: Is the Clinton Foundation Hillary’s Achilles’ Heel?
Accepting those donations, however, violated a Memorandum of Understanding demanded by Barack Obama before appointing Clinton to run the nation’s foreign affairs. Both the Clintons and the foundation pledged total transparency and solid firewalls in operations of both entities. How did that work out? The Associated Press had to sue to get the calendars from which this analysis was derived.
The release of e-mails, also long blocked by Hillary Clinton and State, show just how lucrative donor status could be. When the Crown Prince of Bahrain wanted a meeting with Secretary Clinton, her office initially put him off, The Wall Street Journal reports. An e-mail exchange from foundation executive Doug Band on behalf of the $32 million donor to Huma Abedin straightened that out. Two days later, a meeting with Crown Prince Salman was on the calendar.
That paid off for Bahrain, a country high on the list of Human Rights Watch for the “torture and mistreatment of detainees,” in more concrete terms, too. David Sirota reported in 2015 about the curious increases in arms sales that took place with governments that contributed to the Clinton Foundation during Hillary Clinton’s tenure. Between 2010 and 2012, arms sales to Bahrain increased by 187 percent over a similar period from 2006-8 during the Bush administration, including a $70,000 purchase of toxicological agents. Bahrain at the time was suppressing an Arab Spring uprising of the kind that the Obama administration was encouraging in other places, even in nominally allied Yemen.
Consider also the curious case of Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian steel magnate who donated over $8 million to the Clinton Foundation and had committed to giving as much as $20 million more to its initiatives. The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger reported last October that Pinchuk had used his Clinton Foundation connections to get a meeting with a “top Clinton aide” at State, but that’s hardly all his $8 million bought. While Secretary of State, Clinton hosted a dinner for her foundation’s donors, including Pinchuk, who had hired longtime Clintonista Douglas Schoen to lobby the State Department on behalf of the Yanukovich government – the pro-Russian regime that Ukrainians sacked in late 2013, a change that was supported by the Obama administration.
But wait, as television pitchmen say – there’s more! At the same time as Pinchuk was lobbying State and getting invited to close access dinner events through his Clinton Foundation connections, he had connections of a very different kind through his businesses. Newsweek reported in April 2015 that Pinchuk had been selling oil pipeline and railroad equipment to Iran in 2011 and 2012, in apparent violation of the tight sanctions placed on Tehran over their nuclear-weapons development.
Fred Fleitz, former chief of staff to John Bolton when the latter was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control in the Bush Administration, wrote last year that the lack of action by the State Department was stunning. “Congress needs to determine why sanctions were not imposed in this case,” Fleitz wrote, “and whether pressure was put on lower level State Department officials to overlook this violation.” Even if no overt pressure was put on underlings, how many of them would have felt comfortable with pressing a case against a figure that Hillary Clinton invited to dinner?
Expect more revelations to flow out of the e-mails and Clinton Foundation records. Just don’t expect it to make much of a difference. Questions have been raised about connections between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department for years. Hillary Clinton’s attempt to circumvent legitimate Congressional and judicial oversight of State Department operations by hiding communications in an unauthorized and non-secure e-mail system is a brazen corruption of constitutional authority, and yet it hardly put a dent in her race to the nomination.
We have moved beyond character and morals in American society to an entirely transactional kind of politics. Not only do people no longer value character and integrity, but we have also become almost hostile to the proposition that they matter at all. If those values still mattered to American voters, we would not have the two least-favorable candidates in either party as nominees for the presidency.
The Romans who begin bidding for the throne at the end of The Fall of the Roman Empire would recognize this new cultural environment. When character and integrity no longer matter, Mike Royko’s suggested motto for Chicago of ubi est mea is the only standard that applies: Where’s mine?