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Bill Clinton Defends His Foundation's Foreign Money

The ex-president says the big-bucks donations didn't buy influence with his wife.
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/ Source: NBC News

Bill Clinton says he has no regrets about taking millions in foreign cash for his foundation — even though the donations have caused a political headache for Hillary Clinton as she tries to follow him into the Oval Office.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News' Cynthia McFadden, the former president said his charity has never done anything "knowingly inappropriate."

Under pressure, the foundation recently announced it will only accept contributions from six Western governments going forward, but Clinton says that's no acknowledgment the old policy — under which Saudi Arabia gave between $10 million and $25 million, for instance — was a mistake.

"Absolutely not," Clinton told NBC News during his current tour of Africa to visit a wide variety of the foundation's projects.

"It's an acknowledgement that we're going to come as close as we can during her presidential campaign to following the rules we followed when she became secretary of state."

The 42nd president says he is "proud" of his foundation's work.

"There has never been anything like the Clinton Global Initiative," he said, "where you've raised over $100 billion worth of stuff that helped 43 million people in 180 countries."

He was talking about good works like the "Wings to Fly" program that has helped 10,000 poor kids in Kenya attend high school.

The program has been a whopping success, with 94 percent of the kids graduating and 98 percent of them going on to college.

Former President Bill Clinton tours projects in Africa.
Former President Bill Clinton tours projects in Africa.Jake Whitman

The foundation is involved in a vast array of projects, from a vaccination center in Tanzania to an elephant research center in the Samburu District of Kenya.

While in Tanzania, he and 20 of the foundation's big donors also visited the Anchor Farm Project which is expected to produce huge yields of maize and soy and to help locals learn new agricultural techniques. They connected with a group called "Solar Sisters" that empowers women by selling environmentally friendly products such as solar lights and cook stoves.

They are headed Monday to Liberia — where they helped the government combat HIV/AIDS and coordinated delivery of medical equipment and supplies during the Ebola epidemic — to see several survivors.

In Nairobi, he and his daughter Chelsea personally helped fit a group of children with hearing aids in support of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which went from providing 50,000 of the devices a year to 175,000 with assistance from Clinton's group.

"I gotta pay our bills. And I also give a lot of it to the foundation every year."

As he walked between the white tents set up at the Savelberg Retreat Center, he addressed the controversy that's been making headlines 7,000 miles away.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we have never done anything knowingly inappropriate in terms of taking money to influence any kind of American government policy," he said. "That just hasn't happened."

It's unclear if the new ban on foreign money, along with an agreement to update donor lists more frequently, will quiet insinuations that overseas contributions to the foundation — accounting for more than half of those who gave $5 million or more — bought access to the woman who may become the next president of the United States.

Former President Bill Clinton tours projects in Africa.
Former President Bill Clinton tours projects in Africa.Jake Whitman

But Bill Clinton says he's not worried about the criticism, brushing it off as "political." He quoted his wife as telling him: "No one has ever tried to influence me by helping you."

He claimed there has been a "very concerted effort to bring the foundation down" and said he might even step down as its head if his wife is elected.

"I might if I were asked to do something in the public interest that I had an obligation to do. Or I might take less of an executive role," he said. "But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

One thing he won't stop doing: giving high-priced speeches, even though he acknowledges being a wealthy man these days, reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars.

"I gotta pay our bills," he said. "And I also give a lot of it to the foundation every year."

The fees — $500,000 or more for 11 speeches while his wife was Secretary of State — are justified, he insisted.

"I spend a couple of hours a day just doing the research. People like to hear me speak," he said.

"We do our best to vet them," he said of the groups that pay for his talks. "And I have turned down a lot of them. If I think there's something wrong with it, I don't take it."

He also says he has turned down donations to the foundation — though he won't say from where.

"Since I turned it down, I don't need to talk about it," he said. "We've got over 300,000 donors and 90 percent of them have given $100 or less."

"All I'm saying is the idea that there's one set of rules for us and another set for everybody else is true."

Throughout the interview, Clinton repeatedly turned to the question of transparency, declaring that his foundation discloses more about the source of its donations than those of other ex-presidents.

Asked about a series of tax forms on which the foundation did not list any contributions under a section for donations from governments — rolling the sum into overall revenue, instead of breaking it out — Clinton said it was an innocent mistake.

"The guy that filled out the forms made an error," he said. "Now that is a bigger problem, according to the press, than the other people running for president willing to take dark money, secret money, secret from beginning to end."

The problem, he said, is not that the Clintons don't have to play by the rules that apply to everyone else — it's that the family is held to a higher standard.

"People should draw their own conclusions. I'm not in politics," the former president said. "All I'm saying is the idea that there's one set of rules for us and another set for everybody else is true."

"The people who have attacked the foundation have practiced selective nondisclosure," he added, "I really trust the American people to figure it out. I always have. And so far, I haven't been disappointed."

If he was troubled by the criticism at home it was not evident as he patiently posed for pictures, shook hands and talked at every stop with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of people. He was clearly touched by the kids who often welcomed him with songs written just for his visit.

Clinton said all the work — the long hours and often rough travel — is worth it.

"The lives we save and the impact we've had," he said, "I'm proud of it."