The game is called "pay to play." Want face time with government officials, so you can press them for favors or support for specific policies? Then write a nice fat check to their re-election campaign, favorite super PAC, or in the case of Bill and Hillary Clinton, their charitable foundation. By all accounts, the Clinton Foundation has done noble work fighting AIDS and promoting economic development around the world. But it has also employed many of the Clintons' loyalists and aides, as well as connecting Bill with deep-pocketed businessmen, corporations, and foreign governments — some of whom then paid Bill personally for consulting work and speeches. Was it corrupt for Hillary, then secretary of state, to show her appreciation by meeting with foundation donors and making some phone calls on their behalf? Not according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just two months ago, the court voted 8-0 to throw out the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who had pocketed about $175,000 in gifts and loans from a favor-seeking business owner. It may be "distasteful" that the grateful McDonnell set up meetings for the businessman, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, but it wasn't illegal. To be guilty of taking a bribe, the court ruled, an official has to explicitly agree to perform an "official act" in exchange for money — that is, make a decision on some pending matter in his power. By this standard, politicians have to be morons to be convicted of corruption; they have to get caught saying, "I'll get that policy changed, but only if you give me money." A smart politician knows how to flatter donors and connect them with other powerful people — to create the perception that their money has bought something of value — without crossing the line. Nobody ever said the Clintons — who've reported more than $100 million in income since 2001 — weren't smart.