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Clinton and Trump Each Hit Other Over Transparency — But Who's Right?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are lobbing stones over whose glass house is more opaque on a number of issues but who's got the upper hand?
Image: Donald Trump Sr. and Melania Trump Wedding, Self Assignment, January 22, 2005
Newlyweds Donald Trump Sr. and Melania Trump with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at their reception held at The Mar-a-Lago Club in January 22, 2005 in Palm Beach, Florida.Maring Photography / Contour by Getty Images

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are lobbing stones at each other over whose glass house is more opaque.

It’s a battle of comparative transparency that’s been fought on at least four fronts this week, from taxes to health records, family foundations and press access.

Trump has long accused Clinton of withholding vital information about her health and finances, making those charges of secrecy central to his campaign. But longstanding questions about Trump's own record and new reporting have put him on the defensive on the very same issues.

Most significantly, Trump has steadfastly refused to release any tax returns, a break from four decades of campaign precedent, which could shed light on a number of ongoing questions dogging his candidacy. Clinton and her husband have released tax records going back to 1977. Trump has said he won’t release any records because he’s undergoing an audit, although there’s no legal reason he can’t do so.

“You want to debate transparency?” President Obama said while campaigning in Philadelphia Tuesday. “You got one candidate who’s released decades worth of her tax returns. The other candidate is the first in decades who refuses to release any at all."

That long-running transparency fight has been amplified by a newer one on health records following Clinton’s belatedly revealed pneumonia diagnosis last week, leading to mutual accusations of deceit between two candidates who are distrusted by most Americans.

“Trump has not taken the basic step of transparency,” Karen Hobert Flynn, the President of the public interest group Common Cause said.

While Flynn had plenty of criticism of Clinton’s level of disclosure and called for more, the comparison between the two was clear, according to her. Clinton has "obviously done a far better job than Donald Trump,” she said.

And while critics say Clinton's private email server was an attempt to circumvent public disclosure, the public ultimately ended up with access to tens of thousands of her email.

Health records

With both candidates set to release new medical information in coming days, Trump’s campaign appears to have found a sudden respect for candidates’ privacy as they signal they may withhold embarrassing information.

Until now, the only information Trump provided was a brief letter from his personal doctor, Harold Bornstein, declaring Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Bornstein later said he wrote the statement in just five minutes.

“It's almost certain she's in better health than her opponent. But we don't know, because he hasn't disclosed,” Bill Clinton said of his wife in an interview with Charlie Rose Monday.

Trump plans to reveal more this week and he will appear on the TV show hosted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, but that discussion will be a more general one, not specific to his own health records, according to the campaign.

“I’m not going to ask him questions he doesn’t want to have answered,” Dr. Oz told Fox News Tuesday. “It’s his decision. The metaphor for me is, this is a doctor’s office.”

Trump himself told CNBC on Monday that he was confident new information he disclosed from his latest physical would be positive, “otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you I did this.”

The Republican nominee has spent weeks alleging that Clinton lacks the mental and physical stamina to be president, raising the stakes for him to credibly prove his own fitness.

“I think that both candidates, Crooked Hillary and myself, should release detailed medical records,” Trump tweeted late in August. “I have no problem in doing so! Hillary?”

Yet on Tuesday, his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that there was a limit to the public’s right to know. “I don't know why we need such extensive medical reporting when we all have a right to privacy,” Conway said.

Press Access

In the same interview, Conway accused Clinton of treating the media as “second-class citizens” by keeping them in the dark on her health on Sunday. Clinton abandoned her traveling press pool, the rotating group of reporters meant to follow the candidate everywhere, for about 90 minutes.

That’s unacceptable for an arrangement meant to provide the public with information in case of just such an emergency — a failing for which Clinton’s campaign has acknowledged and apologized. And her campaign has yet to match the full level of access granted by previous candidates to protective pools.

On the other hand Trump — who has often attacked Clinton for hiding from the press — has no protective pool. Unlike Clinton, reporters do not generally travel on his plane to campaign events. His campaign has also prevented disfavored outlets from attending his events and suggested he wants to make it easier to sue reporters.

Charitable Foundations

Meanwhile, a simmering controversy over Trump’s charitable foundation has sparked new concerns about ethics, disclosure, and allegations of pay-for-play politics. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Clinton supporter, revealed Tuesday that his office has opened an inquiry into Trump's charity.

This intense scrutiny comes after more than 18 months of news stories raising questions about potential conflicts-of-interest created by the Clinton Foundation — questions that Trump has often stoked in speeches and interviews, sometimes in hyperbolic terms.

Last month, he called the Clinton Foundation “the most corrupt enterprise in political history.”

But over the weekend, the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold published the latest chapter in a multi-part investigation into Trump’s personal foundation and found inconsistencies and unusual practices.

NBC News has not independently verified the report, but records reviewed by the Post show Trump has not donated to his own foundation since 2008, and instead used it as a conduit for donations from others, which he would then distribute and take credit for himself. Experts described it as a highly unusual use for a family foundation.

In one instance the Post uncovered, Trump even appeared to potentially profit off the arrangement by renting out his Mar-a-Lago resort to a charity for an event in which he received an award for a large contribution that he had solicited from another foundation.

Despite an exhaustive search, the Post also failed to find evidence that Trump had donated “tens of millions” of dollars to charities and the campaign refused to provide it. Trump has refused to release his taxes and Conway said Trump would not unilaterally release information on his charitable giving. Ironically, one of Trump’s larger known donations is a gift to the Clinton Foundation between $100,000 and $250,000.

Clinton’s team, which feels they’ve long been subjected to asymmetric criticism on their candidate’s foundation, has been eager to turn the tables. "Trump has been less transparent than any nominee in modern history," said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri on Twitter, "but it is a fact that public knows more about HRC than any nominee in history."

The biggest issue with Trump’s foundation so far has been its $25,000 donation to a group tied to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, which came just as Bondi was reportedly considering investigating Trump University. After the donation, Bondi decided against proceeding with the probe.

Trump and Bondi have denied all wrongdoing, but the timing looks bad, and Trump’s foundation was hit with an IRS fine for violating a law prohibiting non-profits from donation to political groups. The foundation had also inaccurately listed the donation as a gift to a non-profit with a similar name to Bondi’s organization.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University who specializes in government ethics, told NBC News the episode raised significant red flags.

"I’m not suggesting it’s the premise for a bribery prosecution, but it seems to me there’s enough there to question whether it’s just a coincidence,” Clark said. “What explains the timing? What was his motivation? Why did he give and why did he give then?”

Two Democratic congressmen from Florida have joined editorial boards and non-profits in calling for a federal investigation into the Bondi donation.

Obama also complained the media has ignored has paid less attention to the Trump Foundation than the Clinton Foundation, echoing widespread frustration in Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters.

“The only reason we don’t have a lot of talk about Trump and his financial conflicts of interest is there are so many other concerns about Trump,” said Richard Painter, who was a top ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, who has refused to back Trump. “I’m a Republican, but I don’t support Trump for other reasons that have nothing to do with ethics.”

Chelsea Clinton has said she will remain on the board of the Foundation if her mother wins the presidency, while Bill Clinton will step down.

Ethics experts warn keeping Chelsea Clinton at the foundation, while legally acceptable, could create more conflict of interest questions down the road if Clinton wins the presidency.

“I think the Clinton family ought to be willing to say no more, and then if they want to start another foundation after she’s president, then they can start another one,” said Painter.

Business empire

But Trump has a major potential conflict that’s been less explored: His multi-billion dollar business empire, which -- unlike the charitable Clinton Foundation — affects his financial standing directly and does not have to disclose as much as non-profit organization.

A new Newsweek cover story argues Trump will have a difficult time disentangling himself from the business.

Trump has said he would put some investments in a trust, a common arrangement for politicians, but most of his net worth comes from his various private companies and real estate holdings. Those, he has said, would be managed by his children.

“The last thing I care about is my company,” he said in an interview with Philadelphia based NBC affiliate WCAU earlier this month. “I'll have my kids run it, I'd put it in trust, and be done with it.”

That would create similar problems to Chelsea Clinton’s presence at the Clinton Foundation.

“You can’t set up a real blind trust under the executive branch without it being run by independent trustees, people he has no existing business relationship with,” said Kenneth Gross, a lawyer who advises clients on conflict of interest issues. “It certainly doesn’t include your children.”

Experts raised an array of conflict-of-interest concerns surrounding the business, many of which are currently exacerbated by a lack of information by Trump about his assets and liabilities.

Unlike stock holdings, it would be difficult from Trump to truly divest oneself from his own businesses even if he appointed an independent CEO and board to manage them. Trump, who regularly calls himself “the king of debt,” would still be aware of outstanding loans on the buildings he invested in, for example, even if someone else was running the company.

Concerns about Trump’s financial ties to Russian oligarchs popped up earlier in the race and peaked after Trump publicly called on Russian hackers to release Clinton’s private e-mail. The Republican nominee denied having investments in Russia, but did not make any new information about his business holdings available.

In general, the disclosure requirements Trump has met to this point are relatively lax, leaving the public in the dark on Trump’s finances and which parts of his business might be affected by his policies should he enter the White House.

“The debt issue is there and there’s no transparency,” Gross said.

Clinton faces some transparency issues surrounding her private dealings as well. She endured tough criticism during the primaries for refusing to release transcripts of speeches she gave to large financial institutions like Goldman Sachs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Clinton has said she will only do so if Trump agreed to release details on any paid speeches he might have given over the years.

While Trump’s running mate Mike Pence recently released his taxes, Trump himself has shown no sign of budging.

“You don't learn much in a tax return,” he told ABC News last week.