Eight years ago, it was Hillary Clinton who was accusing candidate Barack Obama of being swayed by his financial backers, including his connections with Tony Rezko, a fundraiser who was imprisoned for his role in “pay-to-play” schemes involving former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Mrs. Clinton now finds herself in the crosshairs of those same accusations but insists there is no fire behind all the smoke rising from the Clinton Foundation.
Her campaign says it’s ridiculous to think donations to the Clinton family’s massive charity were enough to earn access to the secretary in the State Department.
Campaign finance analysts and watchdogs, though, said the parallels between her criticism of Mr. Obama in 2008 and the accusations she faces now are clear, particularly in an age when money appears to buy access in politics.
“I would say they are comparable,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group. “I think it speaks to the larger culture of politics in Washington, D.C., where those with the deepest pockets are afforded the greatest access.”
Mr. Fischer said deep-pocketed donors most commonly contribute to officials or candidates either through their campaigns or through associated super PACs.
“But in this instance, we have the Clinton Foundation, and I think this does show that money not only buys access in the context of a campaign, but also through contributions to groups that are not related to elections but otherwise associated with the candidate, like the Clinton Foundation,” he said.
The Associated Press reported this week that out of a set of 154 private individuals who were allowed meetings or phone calls with Mrs. Clinton during her time as secretary of state, 85 of them gave to the Clinton Foundation or pledged commitments to its international programs.
The report follows newly released emails that show foundation executives used Huma Abedin, Mrs. Clinton’s closest personal aide, as a conduit to try to earn favorable treatment or access for its donors.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says it’s evidence of a “pay for play” atmosphere at Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.
He and other Republicans are calling on a special prosecutor to investigate, and the candidate drew a connection Wednesday between the latest revelations about the foundation and the controversy over Mrs. Clinton’s private email server.
“It’s impossible to tell where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department begins,” Mr. Trump said.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides feverishly fought the criticism, saying it amounted to a “reprehensible attack on a charity.” They said Mrs. Clinton is the victim of a double standard.
Campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said similar questions weren’t raised or attacks launched against former President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation or against 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, whose wife, Elizabeth Dole, ran the American Red Cross.
“And rightfully so, because [these] are charitable organizations that are doing important work, and the idea that they would be dragged into a political back-and-forth and used as weapons for attacks is completely absurd and beyond the pale,” Mr. Fallon said on MSNBC.
“You know what? If any American voter is troubled by the idea that the Clintons want to continue to solve the AIDS crisis on the side while Hillary Clinton is president, then don’t vote for her,” Mr. Fallon said. “But I think most voters are pretty reasonable on that point.”
Former President Bill Clinton defended the foundation on similar grounds, telling reporters in Atlanta on Wednesday, “If there’s something wrong with creating jobs and saving lives, I don’t know what it is.”
Mr. Fallon also said the story was a “cherry-pick” of a comparatively small subset of some 1,700 meetings Mrs. Clinton held and that there was nothing untoward about talking with people like Melinda Gates, the wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
But Republicans said the matter was serious enough that Mrs. Clinton needs to break her streak and hold a press conference for the first time this year.
Mrs. Clinton’s own operation has implicitly acknowledged the appearance of a conflict of interest, saying the foundation will change its policy and reject corporate and foreign donations if she wins the White House.
The last time Mrs. Clinton ran for president, her campaign was demanding more transparency in Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Rezko, an Obama fundraiser who was convicted in June 2008 of charges tied to a kickback scheme involving the disgraced Blagojevich.
“We still don’t have a lot of answers about Sen. Obama and his dealings with Mr. Rezko,” Mrs. Clinton said in a 2008 interview with a television station in Washington.
In that campaign, Mrs. Clinton also strongly implied that Mr. Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, was swayed in his actions in Congress by donations from the oil industry.
“Barack Obama accepted $200,000 from executives and employees of oil companies,” a narrator says in an ad from the 2008 presidential campaign. “Every gallon of gas takes three bucks from your pocket. But Obama voted for the Bush-Cheney energy bill that put $6 billion in the pocket of big oil. Hillary voted against it.”
Charlie Spies, a lawyer who has served as counsel for the Republican National Committee, said at least in the case of Mr. Obama, federal law required that the money be used for political campaigns.
He said Mrs. Clinton’s situation is even more prone to abuse because the money goes straight to a family enterprise run by the Clinton family and its closest supporters.
“The Clinton Foundation isn’t a campaign that has legal restrictions on being personally used,” Mr. Spies said. “Instead, it’s the operation that funds the Clinton lifestyle and all their hangers-on.
“It is much worse,” said Mr. Spies, who was also counsel for the Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise USA. “If you look at the politicians who go to jail who are getting convicted of crimes, it’s almost always because they or their families are personally benefiting from political money.”