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Bill and Hillary Clinton tried to bully a prestigious scholarship program into selecting Chelsea Clinton’s then-boyfriend and then sought “payback” when they were resisted, according to a former top foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama.
The episode took place nearly 19 years ago but has fresh resonance after revelations last month of multimillion-dollar bribes paid by parents to get their children into elite colleges, including Stanford University, which Chelsea Clinton and her then-boyfriend Jeremy Kane attended. Among those recently implicated was Michelle Obama’s former tennis coach.
Trina Vargo, a veteran U.S. adviser on Ireland, founded the George J. Mitchell Scholarship in 2000. It was named after the former senator who brokered the talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Vargo said that Bill Clinton intervened in the first year of the scholarship, when Kane, whose 3.19 grade-point average was much weaker than those of the top candidates, had failed to make the final selection round.
President Clinton, who was in his last weeks in the White House, called Mitchell to express his displeasure, according to Vargo in her new book Shenanigans: The U.S.-Ireland Relationship in Uncertain Times. He had submitted a letter of recommendation for Kane, who had already landed an internship in the Clinton White House during his relationship with Chelsea.
Kane worked in the White House speechwriting office from June to September 2000, arriving some 18 months after Clinton had been impeached over this affair with another White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Kane’s name was not included in Vargo’s book but the Washington Examiner was able separately to establish his identity.
Vargo told the Washington Examiner that the timing of Clinton’s call, which came while the program was choosing its 12 scholarship awardees from a group of 20 finalists, was a blatant attempt to game the selection process. “There’s no way to see that as anything other than an attempt to influence a situation that hadn’t been finalized yet,” she said.
“In light of the college admissions scandal, I don’t think it’s very unusual for people who have money or influence to use what means they have, whether it’s for their children or friends.”
While no money was involved in the Clintons’ attempt to procure a scholarship for Kane, by bowing to their wishes Vargo and her program would have been well-placed to benefit in future years from the largesse of the former first couple and their influential network of Irish American fundraisers.
Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Angel Urena, called accusations of nepotism “baseless and patently false.”
The son of a Presbyterian minister and a tennis coach, Kane was at Stanford on a swimming scholarship. He attended the 2000 Democratic National Convention with the Clintons in Los Angeles. After failing to get a Mitchell Scholarship, he landed a job as a speechwriter for Sen. John Kerry. Now 40, he founded a charter school in Nashville and ran for mayor there in 2015 but finished in last place with less than 5% of the vote. He now works in real estate.
Kane’s friendship with Bill Clinton endured after his 2001 breakup with Chelsea, now 39. In 2014 the former president flew to Nashville to speak at an event he had organized. Kane declined to comment when contacted by the Washington Examiner.
Students who won a Mitchell Scholarship in 2000 include Desha Girod, now a government professor at Georgetown University, Gabrielle Paquette, dean of the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, Massachusetts state Rep. Tommy Vitolo, and Laela Sturdy, a partner at Google’s growth venture capital fund.
MIkela French, 42, who graduated from Boise State University, was also one of the Mitchell Scholars that year. She is now a criminal litigator. She told the Washington Examiner it was troubling that President Clinton would attempt to intervene in the decision process. “I think that’s cheating,” she said. “If that did happen, I definitely think it’s a real shame.”
She was “surprised and delighted” to have received the scholarship because she attended a small state school and knew she was competing against Ivy League students. She used the scholarship to study at Queens University in Belfast, achieving a master’s degree in Irish Studies. After hearing about the recent college admissions scandal, French was grateful that the program chose students based on merit rather than their personal connections.
“If the Mitchell hadn’t been a program that was geared towards true equality of opportunity, my application may not have been taken on its own merit,” she said. “The things that I learned, the connections that I made, the amount that I grew, I have lifelong friendships and an invaluable education. I do think it was an absolutely wonderful thing to have had in my life.”
Shenanigans details Clinton’s phone call to Mitchell. “It was with some uneasiness that he rang me to say that President Clinton had just been onto him and he was very unhappy that the boyfriend of his daughter Chelsea was not among the 20 finalists for a Mitchell Scholarship,” wrote Vargo. “Mitchell made it clear that he was not asking me to do anything; he just wanted to understand the background and asked what he should say to the president.”
Vargo said: “If he had called George Mitchell after we had selected the twelve finalists just to say that the organization doesn’t know what they’re doing because they didn’t pick him, that would be fine from my perspective. The timing … it was meant to influence decisions.”
A month after Kane failed to make the shortlist, Vargo ran into Hillary Clinton at a reception at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. “It was immediately clear to me that she knew I was the person she viewed as responsible for Chelsea’s boyfriend not getting the scholarship,” Vargo wrote in Shenanigans. “For those few seconds, her eyes closed to a slit, the way they do when one is unhappy and sizing up a person.”
The Clintons were out of power for the eight years of the George W. Bush administration but Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in 2009 after losing the Democratic primary race to Barack Obama the previous year. Vargo was a 2008 adviser to Obama and debunked Hillary Clinton’s claim to have been a central figure in the Irish peace process, a move that cemented the Clintons’ disdain for her.
Bill Clinton abruptly pulled out of a speech to Vargo’s organization in Belfast in April 2008, blaming a scheduling conflict and leaving her with a nonrefundable deposit for a block of hotel rooms. “I immediately suspected this was payback for the fact that Sen. Clinton’s overreach on her role in the peace process had been called out,” Vargo wrote.
Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department cut the Mitchell Scholarship’s $500,000 annual budget.
Vargo wrote: “In 2011, Mary Lou Hartman, former director of the Mitchell Scholarship program, bumped into [Clinton adviser Melanne] Verveer, who made clear that I was persona non grata … Just months later, the State Department informed us they were totally eliminating all funding for the Mitchell Scholarship program in the next State Department budget.”
State Department emails found on Hillary Clinton’s private server show her senior staff were attentive to the Mitchell Scholarship’s finances, which represented 0.1% of the State Department’s foreign exchange education program budget.
After Vargo tried to renew the group’s funding by meeting with members of Congress, State Department aide Kris Balderson wrote to Hillary Clinton: “She will not succeed.”
Nick Merrill, Hillary Clinton’s spokesman, said the funding cuts were unrelated to any personal grievances. “While funding was cut when Secretary Clinton was at the State Department, funding was also cut under Secretary Kerry. Both [were] the product of a constant battle with a Republican Congress to fight for diplomatic and development dollars, there is nothing more to it than that.”