Vox: 4 experts make the case that the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising was troubling
"What's so troubling is that these revelations suggest that if you want to see the secretary of state, it helps to make a large donation — that’s the perception this gives," says Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.
I struggled with this idea when I first heard it. After all, if we can’t say anything wrong actually occurred, then who should care what the "perception" is from the outside? Isn’t the appearance of a conflict of interest inherently meaningless if it is ultimately just an appearance?
I think Noble’s response to this question is worth quoting in full:
Politicians like to say things like, "I would have given the lobbyist for Exxon a meeting regardless of their donation," and that might be true. But the problem is that it’s impossible to know if the meeting would have happened anyway, if the meeting was given out of a favor, or what.
So they don’t get the benefit of the doubt. It’s their job to make sure they avoid the appearance of a conflict in interest in the first place — because if a politician has made a decision that affects a major donor [whose money they want], then it becomes basically impossible to sort out why they did it. It calls into question the decision even if it’s totally legitimate and the best one they could make.
That’s why the very idea that access to government depends on how wealthy you are — and how much you give — is so dangerous. What the Clintons did here helps create the impression that if you’re a small-business person who wants to talk to the secretary of state, then you’re out of luck. But if you donate a few million dollars to her husband’s charity, you can talk to her.
In other words: Since it’s so difficult for anyone to ever prove a quid pro quo, it’s incumbent on politicians to recuse themselves so it can’t even look like they’re swapping favors for private donations — or to not take those donations in the first place.