At State Dept., Sparring Over Clinton Foundation Emails: ‘Am I Not Speaking English?’

By Patrick Goodenough | August 11, 2016 | 12:36am EDT
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and aide Huma Abedin in June 2011 (AP Photo, File)

( – A State Department spokeswoman’s evident reluctance to answer a question about the propriety of the relationship between the department and the Clinton Foundation during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure raised hackles during Wednesday’s daily press briefing.

At one point an exasperated reporter asked, “Am I not speaking English?”

The exchange occurred as reporters questioned State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau about a newly-released batch of Clinton era emails, some of which revealed that department aides were asked to do favors for individuals important to the Clinton Foundation.

One series of emails – which were released by Judicial Watch – related to a request by a Clinton Foundation executive for Clinton’s aides at the State Department to facilitate contact between a top foundation donor and a senior U.S. diplomat.

Citing that incident, Abigail Williams of NBC News asked Trudeau, “You don’t feel like there was impropriety in the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department at the time?”

Trudeau said the department talks “to a wide range of people, at my level, at various levels in the department – NGOs, think tanks, business leaders, experts on a variety of subjects.”

“That’s not her question,” interjected Matt Lee of the Associated Press, while another reporter pointed out that Clinton had pledged not to “personally or substantially in any way involve herself with the Clinton Foundation.”

“Doesn’t this, then, seem to violate that pledge?” he asked.

(A “revolving door ban” pledge included in an executive order issued by President Obama on his first day in office requires all appointees entering government to pledge, “I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.”)

Trudeau repeated that State Department officials communicate with a wide range of people, adding, I’d note that former Secretary Clinton’s ethics agreement did not preclude other State Department officials from having contact with Clinton Foundation staff.”

“Can you at least try to answer Abigail’s question, which was: Has the department looked into this and determined that there was no impropriety?” asked Lee.

“The department is regularly in touch with people across the whole spectrum,” Trudeau repeated.

“That’s not the question,” said Lee. “The question is whether or not you’ve looked into this – the building has looked into it and determined that everything was okay, that there was nothing wrong here.”

“We feel confident in our ability and our past practice of reaching out to a variety of sources and being responsive to requests,” Trudeau said.

“I’m sorry, are you – am I not speaking English?” Lee asked.

“I’m not asking you if – no-one is saying it’s not okay, or it’s bad for the department to get a broad variety of input from different people,” he continued. “The question is whether or not you have determined that there was nothing improper here.”

“We feel confident that all the rules were followed.”

In a series of emails in April 2009 – three months after Clinton became secretary of state – Clinton Foundation advisor Doug Band urged her aides Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills to set up a meeting between a big donor to the Clinton Foundation, Gilbert Chagoury, and what he called “the substance person” in Lebanon.

Abedin replied to Band that she would speak to Jeff Feltman – a career diplomat had been Washington’s ambassador in Beirut until early the previous year. (Feltman subsequently served as Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and is now undersecretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations.)

Abedin’s offer to speak to Feltman seemed not to satisfy Band, who replied, “Better if you call him. Now preferable. This is very important.” After a redacted portion, Band added, “He’s awake I’m sure.”

Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire whose family is Lebanese, has longstanding ties to former President Bill Clinton. He also donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation.

Also discussed at the briefing was an email in which Band asked Abedin and Mills about getting an individual – whose name was redacted – a job at the State Department.

In both that instance and the one relating to Chagoury and Feltman, Trudeau declined to “speak to specific cases.”

“I will note though, broadly, the department regularly hires political appointees with a range of skill sets for a broad variety of jobs,” she said. “It’s not unusual for candidates to be recommended to the department through a variety of avenues.”

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