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Public Statements

Executive Session

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

EXECUTIVE SESSION -- (Senate - January 21, 2009)


Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, yesterday--a historic day--we swore in a new President who has the vigor and the vision to restore America's place in the world. I think we would all agree that yesterday he made very inspiring and bold statements about America and how we will invite the world to join us in the efforts to restore our values, in a sense, to the center stage of that debate, but also to join in a renewed effort to find peace and end conflict. I thought his words, particularly to the Muslim world, were very important. We hope, obviously, to be able to move on those initiatives as rapidly as possible. Already, the new administration is taking crucial, long-awaited steps to embark on a new era of moral leadership and global outreach.

It is an understatement to say these are challenging times. We are fighting two wars and the threat of terrorism, as we all know, is as strong as ever. As the President said, we labor under gathering clouds and raging storms of the severest economic crisis of our lifetime. At such a moment, it is essential that we provide the President with the tools and the resources he needs to effect change. That starts by making sure he has the national security team he has chosen in place as soon as possible. Even this afternoon, the President will follow through on promises he has made to sit down on day one with his national security team, particularly with the military leadership, in order to talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wars we are involved in. That team includes Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

I think everyone can agree that at her confirmation hearing, Secretary-designate Hillary Clinton demonstrated an impressive grasp of the numerous complex foreign policy issues we face and she demonstrated why she is going to make such an effective Secretary of State. She has the stature to project America's leadership globally and to help build alliances at home and abroad. That is going to be vital to our success in the years ahead.

Now, I understand the concerns that were raised about fundraising activities of the Clinton Foundation. Let me start by saying that Secretary-designate Clinton and former President Clinton have voluntarily entered into an ethics review and disclosure process with respect to donations to former President Clinton's foundation that goes well beyond any requirements under the law or any applicable ethics regulations. This is an unprecedented situation none of us can contest, nor would we. There is no existing blueprint on which to draw here. Secretary-designate Clinton and former President Clinton have gone to considerable lengths to create a new review process tailored to these particular circumstances.

Senator Lugar, myself, and others on the Foreign Relations Committee expressed our own concerns about aspects of this new arrangement. We went through a thorough review of the relevant agreements that Senator Clinton and former President Clinton have entered into. We submitted numerous questions for the record, and they were very direct and blunt questions. We examined this issue extensively in the lead-up to Senator Clinton's nomination hearing, and then again at the hearing itself. Senator Lugar at quite some length expressed why he saw some issues here and expressed some concerns, but at the same time could not have been more clear about his support--enthusiastic support--for Senator Clinton assuming these responsibilities. The conclusion we reached was whatever the concerns some in this body may have--and we don't contest the legitimacy of believing that, as Senator Lugar said, perhaps going further would have cleared some of the questions that still exist--but that doesn't mean that on the other side there is an automatic--that there is a problem. So in essence, none of these questions call into question at all Senator Clinton's fitness, readiness, and appropriateness in serving as Secretary of State. Senator Lugar, in his very clearly stated view with respect to this issue, offered a series of well-thought-out additional proposals, and he made clear that notwithstanding those proposals--which in his heart and in his mind he felt would have simply made this much clearer--he nevertheless was clear about his intention, without those being put in place, that he felt it was important that Senator Clinton be confirmed. It is noteworthy that after a very lengthy discussion about review and disclosure and after the full consideration by the committee itself, the Foreign Relations Committee passed her nomination out and brought it here to the floor by a vote of 16 to 1.

Now, as we think about this issue, for anybody who is not yet decided about what they may or may not do, context is very important. The Clinton Foundation does extraordinary, worthwhile, lifesaving work in areas such as HIV/AIDS, global climate change, and economic development in some of the most impoverished corners of this planet. It is important to remember that the Clintons do not in any way personally benefit financially from the actions of the foundation. So there is none of the sort of traditional notion of financial conflict of interest. It doesn't exist because there is no personal financial interest by either of them. Moreover, according to Secretary-designate Clinton, all donations to the Clinton Foundation, including donations to the Clinton Global Initiative, will be disclosed publicly. So nothing relevant to the measurement of a potential conflict is being withheld from the public. Transparency is critically important here, obviously, because it allows the American people, the media, and those of us here in Congress with an oversight responsibility to be able to judge for ourselves that no conflicts, real or apparent, exist.

Senator Clinton was also very clear personally at the hearing and in her answers to the questions for the record in saying that she fully understands her obligation and her interest in avoiding any kind of unwelcome distraction. I take her at her word. I hope the rest of our colleagues will do so also.

I understand that Senator Lugar and some others have requested that large donations from foreign entities ought to be disclosed more frequently than the once-a-year requirement outlined in the agreement. I happen to agree that that would have been preferable, but the bottom line is that the desired deterrent effect still exists, and the bottom line is the public will still know, albeit in a different time frame, but it will know what the situation is. Furthermore, all contributions by foreign governments will be subject to a review process by the State Department's ethics officials. This review will occur prior to the receipt of any such contribution, and Senator Clinton has made it clear that the process has been designed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. As all of us know, the appearance of a conflict under the law is always as critical as the reality of a conflict. It stands at the same level of scrutiny and, therefore, I think her statement is a very important one.

It is important to note that the pledges for future contributions by foreign governments will also be subject to this same review process. That was an issue of particular interest to me and some other members of the committee, and I appreciate the willingness of Secretary-designate Clinton and the foundation to address the issues during the discussions we had over the memorandum of understanding leading up to the hearing. Again, I and others preferred that those pledges might have also been subject to disclosure requirements.

Still, we take comfort in the fact that they are going to be subject to the ethics review process and subject also, frankly, to the stated interest Senator Clinton expressed before the committee of avoiding any kind of conflict or perception issue, and I am confident she is going to bend over backward to try to make sure that happens.

So, in the end, I fully respect the questions that have been raised. I acknowledge that some members of the committee felt that perhaps the final product could have expressed more, but the final product is not contained entirely within the framework of the four corners of the agreement. It is contained in the framework of the hearings and it is contained also in the expressions made publicly by Senator Clinton about what she intends to do as a matter of personal oversight in this effort to live up to the standards that have been expressed.

So I am confident that significant and sufficient checks and balances exist and that we should proceed forward and overwhelmingly--I hope unanimously but certainly overwhelmingly--confirm Senator Clinton. She needs to assume these responsibilities and begin serving the country as our Secretary of State. And while the Senate ponders the ethical implications of Senator Clinton's charitable work and President Clinton's charitable work, we need to remember that the world is moving at a fast pace. There isn't time to delay American engagement in ongoing crises. Gaza is waiting, the Middle East is waiting, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and a host of other issues, and our Secretary of State needs to be in place and empowered to engage in discussions that have been waiting all these months and weeks now, where President Obama has made so clear that we only have one President at a time. Well, now we have that President and that President needs and deserves his security team.

So I hope my colleagues will join me in appreciating the larger importance of this moment, put aside those concerns with an appropriate, obvious sort of further expression of them but move forward to allow President Obama and his Secretary of State to confront the multiple crises and challenges that are going to be the measure of our achievement as a country and as a Senate and Congress over the course of the next few years.


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