Bill Clinton says that out of the hundreds of thousands of donors to the Clinton Foundation over the past 18 years, there must have been some people who gave to the foundation to gain influence with him and his wife.
But the former president told NPR that doesn't mean any donors received anything improperly.
"It was natural for people who've been our political allies and personal friends to call and ask for things. And I trusted the State Department wouldn't do anything they shouldn't do," Clinton told Steve Inskeep in an interview broadcast Monday on Morning Edition.
Clinton is kicking off the final gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, where heads of state, humanitarians, scientists and other accomplished or influential individuals come together to formulate solutions to global problems.
This week's CGI meeting is the final one because of efforts to prevent further concerns about conflicts of interest between the work of the Clinton family's private charitable enterprises and Hillary Clinton's potential work as the next president of the United States.
The Clinton Global Initiative is a part of the Clinton Foundation, the entity that Bill Clinton established to focus his work after leaving the Oval Office. He has promised to step away completely and split off various parts of the foundation to drastically reduce its scope if Hillary Clinton is elected.
"It's hard, but, you know, if Hillary is elected, I'm looking forward to it," the former president said.
"I've had this job longer than I ever had any job, and I've loved it," Clinton said. "And, you know, we always say in response to our critics that nobody in my family ever took a penny out of this foundation and put millions of dollars in. But I would have paid more to do this job. It was the most fun thing I've ever done."
The Clinton Foundation is defended as a highly rated global charity that has provided affordable medicine, healthy food and economic opportunity to millions of people around the world.
It is attacked as a vehicle that the rich and powerful have used to buy influence with Hillary Clinton during her time as secretary of state and in case she is elected to the nation's highest office in November.
The former president dismisses those charges. He also dismisses the persistent questions about the private email system Hillary Clinton used when she was running the State Department.
And in Clinton's conviction that there was no wrongdoing, there is also frustration that a lack of clear evidence of corruption has not come back to taint his wife's accusers.
"In real life, if somebody tells a lie about you, and I find out it is [a lie], I like you more and them less," Clinton said. "In political life, if they just keep on smearing you — even if it all comes to nothing — people will like you less and won't hold anybody accountable for what they say."
But given the perceptions that have developed around the foundation, does the former president wish they had promised earlier to disavow support from foreign and corporate donors if his wife is elected?
"No, because I thought it was presumptuous in the primary, but we've been working on this for about a year," Clinton said about moves to drastically reduce the scale of the Clinton Foundation and create separation between those entities and Bill and Hillary Clinton if she wins the election.
Emails released from the State Department when Hillary Clinton was in charge revealed foundation staff contacting Clinton's staff to ask for various meetings, or passing along job prospects on behalf of donors. What was not revealed was any proof of favors being performed or decisions being made against standing U.S. policy.
But in GOP nominee Donald Trump's words, even the access itself is evidence of a "rigged system" where the wealthy and powerful look out for each other.
Bill Clinton recognizes that perceptions of wrongdoing, even if they don't reflect the reality, are bound to get attention in today's media environment.
"It's just a more negative environment," Clinton said.
He believes that has taken a toll on Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Of people who may have voted for him but say they cannot support her, Bill Clinton said, "They're responding to the fact that this email thing was treated like the most important event since the end of World War II."
"I wonder if there's a man in America that could have taken what she's been through in the last year and a half," Clinton said of his wife.
He theorizes that people are gravitating toward more negative news stories because of the social and economic upheaval the country has seen: "It will get better if the economy improves, as I believe it is now doing and will do dramatically."
But, he added, that will only happen if Hillary Clinton is elected.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, Bill Clinton convenes the final gathering of his Clinton Global Initiative - an annual conference of the wealthy and powerful. The former president came to the phone yesterday as he prepares to give it up. And he recalled the moment the initiative started, more than a decade ago.
BILL CLINTON: A young man who worked for me, Doug Band, said, we ought to have a meeting like they have at Davos, but we ought to have it in New York at the opening of the U.N. And I said, well, I'd be interested in doing that, but only if our meeting was different, if people actually had to promise to do something. And I took a wild, flying leap.
INSKEEP: Bill Clinton challenged those attending to pay to address anything from climate issues to equality for women and girls. The Clinton Global Initiative is tied to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which has channeled money to AIDS drugs and many other things. It's a charitable empire which has also faced questions about conflicts as Hillary Clinton served in the State Department and ran for president.
Doug Band, the aide we just heard about who helped start the Clinton Global Initiative, was in the news recently. Newly released emails say he sought a diplomatic passport, though he didn't get it. Foundation donors sought meetings with Secretary of State Clinton. The foundation now says if Hillary Clinton is elected president, it will stop accepting foreign and corporate donations. Bill Clinton will leave the foundation board.
How hard is it to contemplate leaving the foundation if you do end up doing that?
CLINTON: Well, it's hard. But I'm - you know, if Hillary is elected, I'm looking forward to it because I think I can do - bring the - I think I'm better at solving problems than I was when I was president because of what I've done in the last 15 years. And I think the potential of this country to start growing in a fairer and more robust way is enormous. And I think our potential to get more out of what we do around the world with the money we're spending is enormous.
INSKEEP: How are you better at solving problems?
CLINTON: Because when I was president, you tend to operate at a 20,000-foot level, whereas - if - you know, the work I've been doing the last 15 years - we're judged in a wholly different standard. Did this - does the deal get done or not, and what are the consequences? Did it work or not? So I think I'm looking forward to the challenge because a sitting president has too many decisions to make every day over too many areas to dig down in the dirt of the problems.
Like, I remember once, I was in Rwanda, when I - right before I started working with the farmers. And I started digging in dirt. And it was red clay, a lot like Georgia. And this guy started laughing at me, this Rwandan farmer. And I said, what's so funny? And he said, oh, we have all these Westerners come here and tell us what we should do. You're the first one who ever dug in the dirt.
INSKEEP: Do you see yourself, Mr. President, as the person who'd be digging in the dirt for your spouse then, if she's lucky?
CLINTON: Well, I will do whatever I'm asked to do. But she said if she wins, that she wanted me to go out to places like coal country, Indian country, small-town and rural America, all - and urban pockets of despair - and try to get the economy going again so we could all rise together, which we haven't really been able to do yet. Although, in the last economic report, we see the year on end - year-end increase in income of 5.2 percent. The percentage was highest in lower-income people.
So the bottom half is finally starting to get their economy going again. And we are so close, I believe, to a new era of more robust and fairer prosperity if we do the right things. And some of them require action in Congress, which will be up to the president to secure and Republicans to be willing to work with her. And I might be able to help some on that.
Will I miss this? Yes, I've had this job longer than I ever had any job. And I've loved it. And, you know, we always say in response to our critics - and nobody in my family ever took a penny out of this foundation and put millions of dollars in - but I would've paid more to do this job. It was (laughter) - it was the most fun thing I think I've ever done.
INSKEEP: Now that you're in the heat of the campaign, do you wish you'd been faster to say the foundation would cut off foreign and corporate donations, which you've now said you will do if she's elected?
CLINTON: No, because I thought it was presumptuous in the primary, but we've been working on this for about a year. I mean, I took it - I thought everybody would take it for granted. It once - when - the rules we had worked great when she was secretary of state because if we made a mistake, you could appeal to the White House. And the White House obviously didn't want anything to be done that shouldn't have been done, so that worked fine.
But when you're president, you have to make the last call. And I just think that, you know, that's very important. That's why I've worked really hard on trying to make sure others can take over this work or we can spin it off into independent entities that I have nothing to do with. I think that's really important.
INSKEEP: But I actually have a larger question in mind. Do you think over the years, Mr. President, that there were people who donated to the foundation thinking that they're building a relationship with you, that they're building a relationship with Hillary Clinton, that you guys might be back in the White House someday?
CLINTON: Well, since we have more than 300,000 donors, it would be unusual if nobody did. But I don't - the names I saw in the paper, none of them surprised me. And all of them could've gotten their own meeting with Hillary. And, you know, when you've been doing this kind of work for as long as we have, you know the people who are the major players. And also, some of them who call my staff - people were doing double duty back then. And I had an office of the former president when it was natural for people who'd been our political allies and personal friends to call and ask for things.
And I trusted the State Department wouldn't do anything they shouldn't do, from a meeting to a favor. And so it didn't surprise me that people would call from time to time. And maybe some of them gave money for that reason, but most of them gave it because they liked what we were doing and because they knew me. And after she came onto the foundation for a few years, they knew her. I mean, Melinda Gates didn't get involved in the No Ceilings project with Hillary because she needed to support her or me or the foundation for access. She did it because the Gates Foundation cares about trying to elevate the standing of women and girls in America and throughout the world. And that's what they did with No Ceilings.
INSKEEP: That's one part of our talk with former President Bill Clinton yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.