TIMES WATCHDOG: New emails provide a fuller look into the former secretary of state’s advocacy for Boeing. The company helped her reach a major foreign-policy goal, gave over $1 million to the Clinton Foundation and sponsored speeches that paid former President Clinton six-figure sums.
As a senator and later secretary of state, Hillary Clinton closely followed the bidding for the U.S. Air Force’s massive $35 billion tanker-refueling contract — a contentious process that pitted Boeing against Airbus, as well as the state of Washington against Alabama.
In February 2011, a staffer at the State Department emailed Secretary Clinton’s private address with unexpected good news: “Boeing won the contract.”
“I’m pleased,” she replied.
Among recent secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton was perhaps the most aggressive booster for big American companies overseas, particularly for Boeing, Washington’s largest private employer.
So appreciative of her sales efforts, Boeing’s then-president and CEO Jim McNerney once turned to her on stage at a government-business conference and lauded her department for advocating like no other in the past two decades: “It’s like back to the late ’80s and early ’90s all over again.”
As the unruly presidential campaign unfolds and as Washington voters prepare for Saturday’s Democratic caucuses, Clinton’s ties to Boeing have resurfaced again.
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who campaigned in Seattle on Sunday, criticized her at a recent debate for supporting “corporate welfare” for Boeing and other giant companies. And while Clinton’s work on behalf of Boeing has been explored in other news reports, recently disclosed messages from Clinton’s private email server give new insights into the symbiotic relationship and how much her department reveled in Boeing success.
During the periods when Secretary Clinton was pushing governments to sign deals with Boeing, the aerospace company provided financial support to help her achieve a major foreign-policy goal. Boeing also donated more than $1 million to the Clinton family’s global foundation set up by her husband, former President Clinton, and sponsored speeches that paid him six-figure sums.
On Tuesday, Clinton will begin her Washington state campaign swing by meeting with Boeing machinists in Everett. The former president of the International Association of Machinists,Tom Buffenbarger, left the job in January and said at the time he would campaign for Clinton and serve as a surrogate speaker.
The Clinton campaign did not make anyone available over the past few days to speak about her relationship with Boeing. In a statement, campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Formas said Clinton “proudly and loudly advocated on behalf of American businesses and workers and took every opportunity to promote U.S. economic interests abroad.”
Advocate for U.S. firms
Part of the role of any modern secretary of state is to advocate on behalf of American businesses abroad. Clinton, however, made corporate diplomacy a centerpiece of her work, directing senior diplomats to advocate for U.S. companies as part of their overseas visits.
At a 2012 event, for instance, Clinton introduced Boeing’s CEO to a crowd of business and diplomacy leaders, and talked about the State Department’s shift toward opening new business markets overseas for American corporate giants.
“This has not always been a traditional focus for us,” Clinton said. “So why, you might ask, is the secretary of state now spending as much time thinking about market swings as missile silos?”
The answer, she said, was that exports in sectors such as telecommunications and aerospace can drive job growth in the United States. She touted her department’s work advocating for Boeing in places like Turkey, Brazil and Vietnam.
Only weeks into Clinton’s four-year tenure as secretary of state, State Department and Boeing leaders talked about how to open up new business in Russia. Within months, she visited Moscow and made what she described as a “shameless pitch” to a Russian airline to buy Boeing passenger jets.
“I hope that on a future visit I’ll see a lot of new [Boeing] planes when I land in Moscow,” Clinton said.
It worked. Months later, in 2010, Boeing got the deal — selling 50 jets valued at $3.7 billion.
World’s fair help
Boeing, meanwhile, was providing Clinton with support early in her tenure.
At the end of 2008, China was finalizing plans to host the 2010 world’s fair. But as most countries prepared to break ground at the exposition venue, the U.S. fundraising team was about to shut down, short on cash and without any pathway to raise the many millions needed to showcase U.S. businesses.
State Department officials warned that if the U.S. abandoned the event, there would likely be “extremely widespread” consequences — to both diplomatic and commercial interests. When former President Carter visited Shanghai in January 2009, the Chinese delegation pushed him to raise the fair on the agenda at the new Obama administration and State Department, according to a diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks.
A Shanghai official seemed to mock the U.S. with a half-joke, according to one cable, saying the Chinese organizers could convert the area reserved for the U.S. pavilion “to a restaurant, or better yet, a McDonald’s.”
Part of the problem was that the nonprofit tapped to raise money for the U.S. effort had been barred by the State Department from soliciting money from many big corporations, including Boeing, said U.S. exposition organizer Nick Winslow. But as the issue rose to Clinton, who made her first visit to China in February 2009, the fundraising lurched forward.
Winslow said the nonprofit was eventually able to solicit money from Boeing and others.
Winslow said he wasn’t aware of Clinton playing a role in any fundraising and that he didn’t see any political pressure. But, he added: “Knowing that it was important to the State Department, did that help? Of course it did.”
Clinton herself couldn’t solicit money, Winslow said, although the State Department now says nothing would preclude her from doing so. Clinton’s emails indicate she was closely involved with the fundraising. In early 2010, an aide emailed a list of companies and their donations, adding that Boeing was set to add even more to the effort.
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“Good work,” Clinton responded. “Let me know if I need to do anything else.”
The aide, Kris Balderston, responded by saying that Mark Penn, the chief strategist to Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, had been “very helpful.” He said “Terry” was also helpful — presumably a reference to Terry McAuliffe, chairman of Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and currently Virginia’s governor.
Boeing ultimately gave $2 million to the expo, helping revive U.S. participation and giving Clinton a major foreign-policy achievement. State Department officials celebrated the large donation, and at an event in Shanghai five days later, Clinton singled out the company, praising Boeing as a “special sponsor.”
As Clinton and Boeing were aiding each other’s agendas at the State Department, the company in turn supported the Clintons outside of government.
In August 2010, soon after the Russian airliner deal, Boeing donated $900,000 to the Clinton Foundation to support Haiti education projects. Boeing said Clinton and Boeing would work together to identify specific projects to help Haiti’s recovery from the earthquake earlier in the year.
Then in July 2012, just months after the State Department helped it secure major deals in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, Boeing said it wanted to sponsor a speech by Bill Clinton to the Global Business Travel Association.
A State Department ethics official reviewed the proposed arrangement for conflicts of interest and, finding none, approved it. Bill Clinton was paid $250,000, public records show.
“The mere fact that an entity has some business before the Department would not necessarily have created a conflict of interest,” said John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, in an email last week.
Lisa Gilbert, who advocates for government integrity at the watchdog group Public Citizen, said what the Clintons were doing likely didn’t violate any rules. But she said it all seemed “unsavory” and would make the average person wrinkle their nose.
Boeing was also a planned sponsor for another Bill Clinton speech in September 2012, according to State Department records. He was paid $200,000 for that event.
After Secretary Clinton left the office in 2013, Boeing continued its support to her family’s interests. That year, Boeing sponsored an event in St. Louis called Clinton Global Initiative University. Disclosures by the Clinton Foundation show Boeing so far has given between $1 million and $5 million to the nonprofit.
The next year, Boeing chief lobbyist Tim Keating hosted a fundraiser at a Washington, D.C., seafood restaurant on behalf of a super PAC created to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Keating said his fundraising for Clinton is personal, not as a representative of Boeing. He also dismissed the idea that Boeing might have donated to causes to curry favor with the Clintons.
Criticism from Sanders
Now in the midst of the presidential primary, Clinton has continued to come to Boeing’s defense.
Before his surprise win in Michigan, Sen. Bernie Sanders hammered Clinton in a CNN sponsored debate for her support of free-trade agreements. He then mocked the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that provides insurance and financing to aid international transactions, calling it “The Bank of Boeing” and a form of corporate welfare.
Clinton defended the bank, saying it preserved U.S. jobs and helped companies of all sizes.
CNN moderator Anderson Cooper noted that Boeing and other big corporations get most of the Ex-Im support. “Do they really need this money?” he asked her.
Clinton said she “investigated” whether Boeing did need the financial support. “I’ll tell you what, Anderson,” Clinton replied. “…I concluded that they did.”