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First Read: Foundation Questions Continue to Plague Clinton

Image: Hillary Clinton delivers remarks during the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting award in Washington

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks during the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting award in Washington March 23, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts JOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Appearance of Scandal: Why Today Isn’t a Good Day For The Clinton Campaign: Well, today isn’t a good day for the Clinton campaign. Here are all of the negative stories as it relates to the Clinton Foundation and money:

  • The New York Times reports that a Canadian mining company – whose principals donated heavily to the Clinton Foundation over the years -- sold its uranium business to Russians, which had to be approved by Hillary Clinton’s State Department and other U.S. agencies;
  • The Washington Post writes about the overlap between the companies and organizations that paid former President Bill Clinton millions in speaking fees but also donated to the Clinton Foundation;
  • And Reuters says that the Clinton charities are refilling their tax returns “after a Reuters review found errors in how they reported donations from governments.”

Now all of these stories are complex and murky. But what they all reveal -- especially the New York Times’ piece on the uranium deal -- is the APPEARANCE of a scandal. Even if you take the Clintons at their word that there was no quid pro quo with these donations to the Clinton Foundation to buy influence, that’s not what the donors may have been thinking. As former Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) described it at Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of state: “The core of the problem is that foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton Foundation as a means to gain favor with the secretary of state.” That’s the problem.

Hillary Clinton Fights Back at ‘Clinton Cash’ Allegations 2:28

How would the Clinton Foundation operate if Hillary becomes president? The question that Hillary Clinton herself has yet to answer is this: How would the Clinton Foundation operate if she BECOMES president, especially -- as Lugar put it -- with foreign entities believing it’s a way to gain favor with the Clinton? It’s a question she needs to answer. As we reported earlier this week, the Clinton Foundation has laid its procedures during the campaign. Those procedures: The Clinton Foundation is no longer accepting new donations from foreign governments. But it is still CONTINUING existing programs that were up and running before Hillary began her campaign. There are six countries that had EXISTING programs -- Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the U.K. As a Clinton Foundation official tells NBC News, “You just can’t pull the plug” on existing programs, especially when they involve multi-year grants. Also under current policy, all disclosures will be listed quarterly instead of yearly (as was the case under the older Memo of Understanding). And after the Clinton Global Initiative completes its already-planned Morocco conference, it will no longer have foreign countries sponsor or co-sponsor CGI events.

Chelsea Clinton on Foundation Finances, Mom Running 3:39

The real damage here for the Clintons: All of these stories unite around a few indisputable facts:

  1. The Clintons became wealthy due to paid speeches, and the Clinton Foundation raked in millions due to celebrity/access reasons.
  2. They didn't seem concerned about appearances. If they believed they weren't being bought off then they didn't see a problem with an appearance. The problem: Can the same be said for the folks who spent the money either lavishing the foundation or paying for a speech/appearance?
  3. These stories do undermine – politically -- Hillary’s attempt to refashion herself as an economic populist. The Clintons made it because of power and access. And now they want to argue for fairness. Do these stories make them more or less credible?
  4. We are an electorate burned out on the polarizing political wars. These new stories are a reminder that the war isn't going anywhere.

House Republicans might not release their Benghazi findings until 2016: With these stories the Clinton campaign now has to contend with, Benghazi now looks to be the easiest one for it to swat away – because it looks the most political. Per NBC’s Alex Moe, “The House Select Committee on Benghazi might not release its findings about the 2012 attacks until 2016 - in the midst of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. ‘Factors beyond the committee's control, including witness availability, compliance with documents requests, the granting of security clearances and accreditations—all of which are controlled by the Executive branch—could continue to impact the timing of the inquiry's conclusion,’ committee spokesman Jamal Ware said in an email.” More from Moe: “House Speaker John Boehner dismissed accusations that the report's timing is politically motivated, telling NBC News that it has been pushed back due to stonewalling by the Obama administration. ‘[The Committee] could clean this up a whole lot quicker if the administration and former Secretary Clinton were in a position to actually cooperate with the committee and turn over the kind of information that we have been seeking for some time,’ Boehner said Wednesday morning.” But back to the APPEARANCE thing: Given all of the other Benghazi-related reports and investigations, anything that looks timed to hit in 2016 seems to be politics at work. And that will lessen the impact. That said, any day the Clinton campaign is spending fending off allegations about the Foundation or Benghazi is a bad day for her campaign.

Boehner: Clinton Needs to Start Cooperating With Benghazi Committee 0:35

The Democratic trade war: On Tuesday in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, President Obama said that Elizabeth Warren is “wrong” in her opposition to the free-trade agreement he’s trying to reach. “I love Elizabeth. We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this,” Obama said. Now Warren is firing back, citing the deal’s “rigged” process in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. But here’s the thing: Trade is on the fast track through the Senate. As NBC’s Frank Thorp reports, the Senate Finance Committee advanced the fast-track Trade Promotion Authority by a 20-6 vote last night.

Rubio to participate in Koch Brothers-backed call to oppose the Export-Import Bank: If Democrats are divided by trade, Republicans are divided on the issue of the Export-Import Bank. And guess who’s jumping on an Americans for Prosperity (read Koch Brothers) conference call at noon ET to oppose the Export-Import Bank’s reauthorization -- Sen. Marco Rubio, who just happens to be one of the five GOP 2016ers in contention for Koch Brothers support. Asked for a response, a Rubio campaign spokesman tells First Read, “They asked us. Marco's happy to help.”

Lynch’s final confirmation to take place around 2:00 pm ET: Finally, NBC’s Thorp reports that the Senate will hold its final vote to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general around 2:00 pm ET. Per Thorp: “At 11:45am ET the Senate will hold their first procedural vote (cloture) after which there will be two hours of debate time. After that debate time is completed they will vote to confirm Lynch. Currently there are five Republicans who have publicly said they support Lynch's nomination, so with 46 Democrats and five Republicans, Lynch already has the 51 votes needed to be confirmed.”

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