Can Hillary turn the page on controversial new book?

Eyeing Clinton's pile of cash
Eyeing Clinton's pile of cash   

Hillary Clinton continues her presidential announcement listening tour this week with stops in New Hampshire, site of her 2008 primary victory.

But staffers back at Brooklyn campaign headquarters will be looking to knock down claims in a new book alleging Clinton did favors while at the State Department for big donors to her family's foundation and for entities that paid big speaking fees to former President Bill Clinton.

The book, "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich," by Peter Schweizer, might ordinarily be dismissed as another in a long line of supposed exposes aimed at the Clintons but based on thin sourcing and innuendo. Indeed, Clinton supporters are already looking to do exactly that.

But the book comes with at least the patina of seriousness and respectability because news organizations including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News have agreements with the author for further reporting on revelations included in the book. This columnist has not seen the book and so cannot assess any claims of quid pro quo. An account of the book in The New York Times says the author suggests that a big free trade agreement with Colombia benefited a Clinton Foundation donor and reports on "more than $1 million in payments to Mr. Clinton by a Canadian bank and major shareholder in the Keystone XL oil pipeline around the time the project was being debated in the State Department."

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The problem here is not necessarily that Schweitzer will be able to prove any connection between foundation donations, Clinton speeches and State Department actions. If he does, that would be enormously explosive and damaging to Clinton's candidacy.

Instead, the issue is really that anyone can make these kinds of allegations by simply highlighting all the money raised by the foundation and earned by Bill Clinton, including from foreign governments and corporations, and connect them in time with official actions from Hillary Clinton's tenure in office. Correlation is not causation. But in politics it can still be damaging.

In reality, there may be absolutely no connection between money given and actions taken. But it's very hard to know that for sure. And people will naturally wonder if Hillary Clinton conducted all her State Department correspondence through a personal email account and private server—and then wiped that server clean—because she had something to hide about her official actions.

The book will also remind voters of just how rich the Clintons got after leaving the White House, earning nearly $140 million between 2001 and 2012, according to The Washington Post. This could make it harder for Hillary Clinton to convince voters that she is in touch with "everyday people," as she claims. Even if she winds up in a general election matchup with someone like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush she will likely wind up as the far wealthier candidate.


Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Selcuk Acar | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The book will also renew the simmering debate about whether the foundation should still be taking foreign money even as Clinton is running for president.

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The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the foundation board had decided to continue to allow direct contributions from six nations—Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the U.K. But any other nation would still be able to pay the $20,000 entrance fee to Clinton Global Initiative events.

The decision by the foundation seems based on the notion that its good works are too important to worry about cutting off a big potential political headache for Clinton. But it's not just a headache. Voters are correct to worry that foreign governments, including repressive regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere, will want to curry favor with a potential future president by pumping cash into the Clinton Foundation directly or indirectly.

It's too soon to say whether this one book will exact any serious toll on Hillary Clinton. But her potential GOP opponents are already talking it up on the campaign trail. And even if Schweizer does not land any new blows, he will at least stir up many issues that will dog Clinton throughout the campaign, from her personal wealth to her email scandal to the vast piles of foreign cash pouring into her family's foundation. It won't be happy reading.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.