Keeping Wall Street Speeches Secret Speaks Volumes About Hillary Clinton
It’s been roughly three months since Hillary Clinton promised, during her Feb. 4 debate with Bernie Sanders on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, to “look into” releasing the transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street investment houses.
If you’re a stickler for details and would like to know precisely how long Clinton has delayed on fulfilling her pledge or exactly how much cash she has raked in for her speaking gigs and from whom, you don’t have to spend hours scouring the Internet. You can simply log onto two sites created by a 40-year-old Sanders supporter and web developer named Jed McChesney of Olathe, Kan.
The first site— iwilllookintoit.com—is a computerized digital clock that ticks off the elapsed time in bold red print, listing the number of days, hours and seconds. The other offers a searchable chart, published at citizenuprising.com, of 91 paid, private talks given by the Democratic front-runner from April 2013 to March 2015.
All told, according to McChesney’s meticulous research, Clinton pulled in a whopping $21.7 million in speaking fees for the two-year period. Of this amount, $3,260,000 came from 14 speeches delivered directly to financial-sector interests, including Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, and, above all, Goldman, which remitted a tidy $675,000 for no less than three chin-wags.
“I was watching the debate … when she said she would look into [releasing the speeches],” McChesney told me in an interview I conducted with him last week via email, as his phone was down as a result of a north Kansas thunderstorm. “I just knew it was a complete blow-off answer.
“I find it to be completely disqualifying,” he continued, regarding Clinton’s presidential bid. “It says a lot about our system when such brazen bribery is wholly accepted. So about … an hour or so after the debate, it just hit me to start a clock to hold her accountable.”
In terms of web traffic, the venture was an immediate success. On Feb. 19, after the Sanders campaign got wind of McChesney’s clock and tweeted out the URL to some 1.5 million followers, the website was featured on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Within 20 minutes, the site drew 160,000 visitors, causing it to crash and forcing McChesney to switch to a larger server. Since then, he estimates, the page views have numbered in the millions.
Holding Clinton accountable, however, has proven elusive. Like countless rank-and-file Bernie backers across the country, McChesney is irate and disappointed—but by no means surprised—that she continues to keep a lid on her talks. “This wouldn’t be acceptable behavior in a banana republic,” he wrote me, “and the fact that the media and Democrats turn a blind eye is astounding.”
It may indeed be too late for accountability or, for that matter, to derail Clinton’s march to the Democratic nomination. But it’s never too late to tell the truth. The fact is that instead of producing the transcripts, Clinton and her surrogates have unleashed a cascade of excuses, obfuscations, false equivalents and evasions to justify her intransigence.
I lack McChesney’s computer and math skills, but I know how to spot slipshod arguments when I see them. To date, the Clinton camp has failed to put forward a single convincing defense of its refusal to release the Wall Street speeches, much less of the wisdom of delivering the speeches in the first place. And as the minutes and seconds on McChesney’s clock continue to tick away, the defenses have only grown more dubious.
Among the first excuses was one floated not by Clinton herself but by reporter Rachel Stockman, the daughter of Reagan-era budget director David Stockman. In a post published on the New York website LawNewz.com just one week after Clinton made her look-into-it pledge, Stockman quoted financial “industry insiders” who said that high-profile corporate speakers like Clinton are often barred from revealing the content of their speeches by nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements.
If accurate, the nondisclosure defense would mean “game over” for anyone seeking transparency from Clinton. Trouble is, Clinton has never voiced support for the defense, and for good reason: It isn’t viable.
Even before Clinton uttered her look-into-it promise, word had leaked that her standard speaking appearance contracts, negotiated by the prestigious Harry Walker Agency, include provisions that prohibit all press coverage of her talks, as well as audio- or videotaping. However, other typical provisions, some of which were reproduced in a Feb. 7 BuzzFeed article, require that stenographic transcripts be made and that Clinton be accorded sole ownership and control of the transcripts. The decision to release the speeches apparently is hers and hers alone.
Much the same can be said of the presumptive Democratic nominee’s initial claim, made in a televised February town hall moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, that in 2013, when she began her speaking tour after resigning as secretary of state, she “didn’t know” she would be running for president in 2016. Because she had no firm ambitions for high office, she told Cooper, she saw no conflicts in accepting whatever Goldman and the other firms offered to pay her.
While it’s true that Clinton did not formally announce her candidacy until April 2015—after the long line of engagements chronicled by McChesney had ended—she had been publicly mulling a second presidential run as long as two years earlier.
As a Yale-educated lawyer, a skilled litigator and polished politician, surely she knew that her Wall Street confabs would at a minimum create the appearance of impropriety if she once again threw her hat in the ring. Any contention to the contrary is the stuff of “Saturday Night Live” comedy that can’t pass the straight-face test.
Equally unpersuasive are Clinton’s three other basic excuses: that she did nothing more than other former high-ranking government officials have done in signing lucrative speaking deals; that she should be held to the same standard as other presidential candidates and will release her speech transcripts only when they do; and that there is no “quid pro quo” proof she ever has been influenced by Wall Street money.
The first claim is eerily reminiscent of the smokescreen Clinton concocted in defense of her use of a private email server during her stint as secretary of state—namely, that her immediate predecessors, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, also conducted official business by means of private email.
Neither Powell nor Rice, however, went so far as to set up their own personal Internet systems in their homes, free from government oversight and beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. Additionally, while Powell, Rice and other former officials may have cashed in on the motivational speaking gravy train, they’re not running for president. Clinton is. Any claim of equivalence rings hollow.
False equivalence also undermines Clinton’s plea that she be held to the same standard as other candidates. Sanders, her only remaining Democratic rival, has no Wall Street speeches to divulge. And Donald Trump, her narcissistic, racist and misogynist GOP counterpart, offers no standards she should seek to emulate under any circumstances.
As the editorial board of The New York Times—normally, a strong Clinton ally—admonished in an op-ed published Feb. 25: “Public interest in these speeches is legitimate, and it is the public — not the candidate — who decides how much disclosure is enough. By stonewalling on these transcripts Mrs. Clinton plays into the hands of those who say she’s not trustworthy and makes her own rules.”
But of all the excuses Clinton and her acolytes have concocted, none approaches her “quid pro quo” contention for sheer chutzpah and duplicity. The stunted idea that the only form of political corruption lies in outright quid-pro-quo bribery—campaign contributions in exchange for votes or executive actions—lies at the heart of the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, which gutted existing campaign finance law and paved the way for the corrosive emergence of super PACs.
In reality, of course, political corruption extends beyond the crass exchange of money for votes and favors. It embraces, as Harvard Law School professor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Lawrence Lessig has instructed, “an economy of influence that leads any sane soul to the fair belief that private influence has affected public policy.”
Even if there is no smoking quid-pro-quo gun in Hillary’s history, there is plenty to suggest Lessig’s economy of influence. From her lackluster record in the Senate as an advocate of the poor and middle class to her intervention in 2009 as secretary of state to stave off criminal prosecution of the Swiss banking giant UBS, the fundraising shenanigans of her family foundation that has netted $2 billion in donations from American corporations and foreign governments, and the millions raised by her super PACs in the current election cycle, Clinton has fostered the widespread perception that she’s become part of the oligarchy that is destroying American democracy.
Producing the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches could transform that perception into certainty. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why Clinton is stalling on her look-into-it promise.
Still, the longer Clinton waits, the greater the risk she incurs of permanently alienating a critical mass of Sanders voters, including McChesney, whose backing she will sorely need as November approaches. As McChesney put it in our interview, “If she can’t show her real constituents simply what she said … she will never get my vote. Ever.”