Opinion polls consistently show that if there’s one thing Hillary Clinton is up against with voters, it’s that too many of them question her honesty.
Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, fed into that theme during an interview on Fox Business with host Maria Bartiromo on March 24, 2016. Norquist segued from talking about her presidential campaign fundraising to the "mixing of her official job as secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation."
Norquist said, "We now know (that) officials were sending official thank-yous to people who gave to the Clinton Foundation. Letting them know ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ that you didn’t just give to the Clinton Foundation. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, appreciates what you’ve done."
We wondered if Norquist's allegation was correct.
When President-elect Barack Obama considered making Hillary Clinton his secretary of state, the immediate concern was that foreign interests might curry favor at the State Department by supporting her husband’s efforts at the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, also called CGI.
To clear the way for Clinton’s nomination, those organizations agreed to a number of measures to avoid real and apparent conflicts. Among the changes, the foundation would publish the names of its donors and separate itself from the Clinton Global Initiative. Bill Clinton would not raise funds for CGI, and CGI itself would no longer accept donations from foreign governments or hold events outside the United States.
After all that, did Clinton's State Department really cross the line by sending officials thanks to the foundation's donors?
We asked Norquist’s spokesman John Kartch for the source behind the statement that State Department officials were sending thank-yous to people who gave to the Clinton Foundation. Kartch sent us a link to a page on the website of Judicial Watch, which describes itself as a conservative educational group.
Judicial Watch posted a number of documents it received through a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department. The first few pages in the collection were an exchange of emails between Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills and other top aides at the State Department, and Amitabh Desai, director of foreign policy at the Clinton Foundation. (Before joining the foundation, Desai was a legislative aide to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.)
Desai wanted Secretary Clinton to speak at the closing session of the Clinton Global Initiative meeting on Sept. 25, 2009. The conversation begins on Aug. 22, 2009, with this letter from Desai to Mills and Huma Abedin, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, at the State Department:
To decode the lingo of CGI, "HRC" is Hillary Rodham Clinton, "WJC" is William Jefferson Clinton and "commitments" are agreements among aid groups, governments and often corporations to work on a particular project. Desai’s list of three commitments included:
Launching a media campaign to reduce sexual violence against girls. It involved the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several United Nations agencies, a large Brazilian ad agency and a foundation set up by a former hedge fund owner.
Promoting the use of vitamin and mineral fortified food among poorer Indian households. It involved a major Indian food corporation.
Expanding a micro-insurance fund. It involved an investment fund that had raised $44 million to provide small insurance policies in poor communities.
Mills at the State Department answered, "I think this if fine but here's my question - how does this work - are these announced before or after she speaks and what relationship are they supposed to bear to what she says?"
Desai said commitments are announced throughout the conference. "We could give you a list of all announcements as they get scheduled as we get closer to the meeting, and anything else that would be helpful." Mills replied, "It would be helpful to have list of commitments during whole session so she can reference more than those just around her speech."
The final words in this email chain come from Caitlin Klevorick, a former consultant to the foundation who became a special assistant in the Secretary of State’s office.
"One question is if we want to see if there is a decent mass of fs (food security) related commitments to announce together at closing as a ‘mega’ commitment," Klevorick wrote.
That is the sum total of the interactions between State Department and Clinton Foundation staff, according to the emails obtained by Judicial Watch.
We asked Kartch at Americans for Tax Reform if we had missed anything and did not hear back.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said he sees clear collaboration between the two entities.
"State Department and Clinton Foundation staff worked together on how Mrs. Clinton could thank Foundation supporters for their commitments during a speech, which Mrs. Clinton did," Fitton said. "Mrs. Clinton, as the result of work by her aides and a Clinton Foundation representative, provided an official thank you during her speech."
This is different from Norquist’s claim. Norquist said State Department officials were sending official thank-yous. The emails don’t describe that.
Further, in her actual speech, Clinton didn’t thank anyone for contributing money. Early on, she did express her appreciation, but that was aimed at governments, not donors.
"As secretary of state, I really, in terms of protocol, should be acknowledging all of the heads of state and heads of government who are here, but there are far too many," Clinton said. "So let me just express my deep appreciation for your involvement and for your presence here. We look forward to working with you and your governments as we move forward on the new agenda of the Obama administration."
A moment later, she praises the entire audience.
"This is an exceptional gathering of people, who have made exceptional commitments to bettering our world. We see it in everything you do. It seems a good opportunity, given the talent, the energy and the passion in this room, to talk about an exceptional global challenge, chronic hunger and what we all can do about it."
Clinton spent the bulk of her speech talking about the White House policy to combat hunger. At the end, she told the audience, "We need your ideas and your feedback, and we need your active support in any and every capacity."
Kathleen Clark, who specializes in public sector ethics law at Washington University in St. Louis, told told us she didn’t see any smoking gun in the emails Norquist offered as evidence.
Norquist said that State Department officials were sending official thank-yous to donors to the Clinton Foundation. We looked at the source documents he relied on and found nothing that supported his version of events. State Department staff did ask for lists of projects and partners in preparation for a speech Clinton was to give at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting.
However, there is no hint that any staff member expressed official appreciation to any donor. There is no indication that money for those projects flowed through CGI.
Finally, Clinton thanked governments for showing up, but didn’t thank donors. She praised the audience in general, but that would include many who were on the receiving end of CGI’s efforts.
The documents do not say what Norquist suggested they said. We rate this claim False.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation separated in 2009. Actually, the groups separated in 2010.