Clintons’ wealth invites campaign attacks

On a trip to the US west coast in April 2014, Hillary Clinton showcased a personal strength that would soon emerge as a political weakness.

In just four days the former secretary of state netted more than $1m from five speeches, one via satellite, to groups such as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. A week earlier, it took only 48 hours for her husband, former president Bill Clinton, to harvest an additional $700,000. 

It was an extraordinary haul, but for the Clintons, business as usual. Since leaving office in 2001, they have earned $237m, mostly from paid speeches and writing books, according to a review of their publicly released tax returns. In 2014 alone, the Clintons reported an adjusted gross income of nearly $28m compared with $357,000 in 2000. 

The windfall has transformed their finances. Mrs Clinton has said the couple was “something like $12m in debt” at the conclusion of her husband’s presidency. Today, they boast mansions in Chappaqua, New York and Washington’s Georgetown district, along with multimillion dollar accounts at institutions such as JPMorgan and Vanguard, according to her financial disclosure report. 

However, the accumulation of such wealth has invited campaign attacks and is likely to shadow policy debates if Mrs Clinton defeats Donald Trump to win the presidency.

In their October 9 debate, the Republican candidate slammed his rival for converting public service into private gain while questioning her failure to devote more of her own money to her campaign.

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“Why aren’t you putting some money in? You have a lot of it,” he said. “You’ve made a lot of it because of the fact that you’ve been in office. Made a lot of it while you were secretary of state, actually.” 

Bernie Sanders, who Mrs Clinton beat to win the Democratic nomination, also attacked her for sharing a world view with wealthy Wall Street tycoons. He assailed Mrs Clinton in April for receiving “huge sums of money” from big banks for speeches, including a 2013 trio for Goldman Sachs that earned her $675,000.

Mr Trump and his surrogates have broadened this critique to include vague allegations that Mrs Clinton prospered by auctioning off government favours. “What product were they [the Clintons] selling?” the candidate’s son Eric Trump asked last month on Fox News. “If we make a buck, we sold a bottle of wine or an apartment, or we sold a hotel room. What product were they selling to make $150m?” 

At a time of populist antipathy towards the elites, Mrs Clinton has acknowledged her vulnerability. She told a Goldman Sachs-BlackRock conference in 2014 that while she had grown up in a middle-class household, “now obviously, I’m kind of far removed because the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy,” according to a January 2016 email from a campaign aide that was released by WikiLeaks. 

The campaign has declined to authenticate the emails and accused WikiLeaks of acting as part of a Russian government effort to “meddle in our election and benefit Donald Trump’s candidacy”. 

Many former presidents faced financial difficulties after leaving office. Harry Truman’s steep income decline once his term ended led Congress in 1958 to establish the presidential pension. Gerald Ford accepted several paying corporate board seats and Ronald Reagan after leaving office gave two speeches in Japan for $1m apiece. 

The Clintons’ moneymaking zeal led Colin Powell, the Republican former secretary of state, to label Mrs Clinton “greedy” in a 2014 email that was recently leaked. Likewise, Chelsea Clinton, their daughter, once worried that individuals claiming to act on her father’s behalf were reminding Londoners of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s prodigious post-government earning “which would horrify my father”, she wrote in a 2011 email to John Podesta, her mother’s campaign manager. 

On their 15-year total adjusted gross income of $237m, the Clintons paid more than $76m in federal income taxes. Including state tax payments, their total tax rate ranged from a low of about 37 per cent in 2007 to almost 46 per cent in 2014, according to their returns. 

So far, Mrs Clinton has surmounted the potential political downside of her wealth. Asked which candidate “better understands the problems of people like you”, registered voters chose Mrs Clinton over Mr Trump by 50 per cent to 38 per cent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month. 

“The Clintons didn’t come from wealth — neither one of them,” said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Mrs Clinton’s 2008 campaign and now executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “Hillary can make a case that they understand the challenges everyday Americans face.” 

Still, if Mrs Clinton wins the White House, she will confront a host of policy issues affecting industries that paid to hear her speak. “It’s not just finance,” said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, an advocacy group. “There’s a whole lot of industries that paid the Clintons a lot of money for speeches.” 

Mr Elleithee says Mrs Clinton can avoid lasting political damage by implementing tax and economic policies that create a “level playing field” for those with far less money. She has already opposed banks on a Department of Labor regulation requiring investment advisers to meet a fiduciary standard and the “Volcker rule”, which bans banks’ proprietary trading.

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