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Bill Clinton defends foreign donations

The former president defended foreign government contributions to his foundation, even as his wife avoided speaking about a separate controversy.

CORAL GABELS, Florida -- Former president Bill Clinton made his first public comments on the controversy over his foundation’s acceptance of foreign government contributions Saturday evening, even as his wife, Hillary Clinton, avoided discussing a separate controversy over her emails at a joint event.

“We do get money from other countries,” Bill Clinton said the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference at the University of Miami here, explaining the money is used to build an endowment so the foundation’s programs will “run forever.”

“And I think it’s a good thing,” he continued. “For example, the [United Arab Emirates] gave us money. Do we agree with everything they do? No, but they’re helping us fight ISIS.”

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The foundation has pushed back on charges of conflict of interest since it was revealed last month that it quietly started accepting new contributions from foreign governments.

Clinton defended the donations, saying they do more good than harm. “You’ve got to decide, when you do this work, whether it will do more good than harm if someone helps you from another country,” the former president said. “And I believe we have done a lot more good than harm. And I believe this is a good thing.”

The key, he continued, was to be transparent. “My theory about this is disclose everything, and then let everyone make their judgements,” he said. “So I’m going to tell you who gave this money, and you can make your own decisions.”

The philanthropic organization that bears Clinton’s name curbed foreign contributions when his wife became secretary of state, as part of an ethics agreement with the Obama administration. But the group lifted the prohibitions after Hillary Clinton stepped down in 2013 without alerting the public, until quietly posting fundraising data online earlier this year.

It’s one of two controversies hanging over the former first family as Hillary Clinton prepares for a presidential campaign launch, which could come as early as next month. The other involves Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email account during her tenure as secretary of state, potentially at odds with administration record keeping policies.  

The former secretary of state, speaking before her husband, did not address either controversy.

She spoke for less than 20 minutes with her daughter, Chelsea, about a program to study the role of women and girls in the global economy called the No Ceilings project. The Clintons will unveil details about the project’s findings Monday in New York City, but gave students attending the conference here a sneak peek.

President Obama, however, spoke out for the first time on the email controversy more than 1,000 miles away during the event. In an interview with CBS News Saturday evening, the president said he learned of Clinton’s use of a private email account via news reports, and that he was pleased his former cabinet official wanted to make her emails public.

“Let me just say that Hillary Clinton is and has been an outstanding public servant. She was a great secretary of state for me. The policy of my administration is to encourage transparency, which is why my emails -- the Blackberry I carry around -- all those records are available and archived,” he said. “And I'm glad that Hillary’s instructed that those emails about official business need to be disclosed.”

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Republicans, who have seized on both controversies, were quick to knock the all-but-declared presidential candidate for steering clear of the issues here.

"Hillary Clinton has spent a week hiding from the press and voters who have serious questions about her commitment to transparency, ethics and national security. It's clear that Hillary Clinton feels the rules that every other American lives by don't apply to her, and today's failure to answer these questions did nothing to allay any of these concerns,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said in a statement shortly after Clinton spoke.

Students who attended the CGIU conference, which asks participants to make commitments to improve their community and the world in various ways, seemed unconcerned by the political scuttlebutt and wanted to focus on promoting their projects and meeting other social entrepreneurs. Several who spoke with msnbc were unaware of the story, which has dominated the political news cycle in the past week.

The conference brought together young people from around the country and world involved a huge variety of social ventures, from helping farmers in rural Afghanistan to helping under-served cancer patients right here on the University of Miami’s campus.

Some projects featured clever inventions, like a small iron fish that boosts iron intake when cooked with food, or a board game meant to help educate women about sexual assault in Colombia. Others used data to improve services, while others still created spaces for food distribution or economic development in poor communities.

On Saturday afternoon, Bill Clinton paid special attention a project to raise awareness of the national debt among young people. The “Up to Us” campaign is sponsored by the Peter Peterson, along with CGIU an the group Net Impact.

The debt is typically an issue that animates conservatives, but the former Democratic president said tackling the nation’s fiscal health should be a priority for the country. He lamented that news conference on budget issues tends to get “overly politicized.” “It’s only difficult because it’s become excessively politicized,” he said.

Michael Peterson, the CEO of the Peterson Foundation, also pushed back on the notion that the debt is a partisan issue. “No matter what you hear, this is not a partisan issue. It’s based on simple arithmetic,” he said. He praised Clinton’s leadership on the issue, saying the president “knows how hard these issues can be.”

New Jersey’s Stockton University won a competition sponsored by the campaign for which college could raise the most awareness about the national debt among 44 campuses.

Later in the evening, Bill Clinton appeared on a panel with Pussy Riot, the Russian female punk group, moderated by Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore.