Perhaps it was an unguarded moment, but the White House has seemingly confirmed that the Justice Department is conducting a “criminal investigation” regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email use – despite persistent claims from the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee that investigators are pursuing a mere “security inquiry.”
Press Secretary Josh Earnest used the term at Thursday’s briefing, after being asked by Fox News about whether President Obama’s newly unveiled endorsement of Clinton might apply pressure to investigators assigned to the Clinton case.
Earnest rejected the premise, saying the job of career prosecutors is to follow the evidence to its logical conclusion.
“That's why the president, when discussing this issue in each stage, has reiterated his commitment to this principle that any criminal investigation should be conducted independent of any sort of political interference,” Earnest said.
The Republican National Committee seized on the use of the term “criminal investigation.”
“The White House’s admission that the FBI is investigating Hillary Clinton’s email server as a ‘criminal’ matter shreds her dishonest claim that it is a routine ‘security inquiry,’” RNC spokesman Michael Short said in a statement.
Asked Friday to clarify his comments, Earnest said he hasn’t been “briefed” by the Justice Department and had no particular “insight” to give.
In fact, FBI Director James Comey had already shot down the Clinton campaign’s terminology last month. Asked at the time by Fox News about Clinton's characterization of the bureau's probe, Comey said he doesn’t know what "security inquiry" means -- adding, “We’re conducting an investigation. … That’s what we do.”
Yet days earlier, Clinton in an interview had downplayed the probe as a “security inquiry.”
And her campaign website still asserts there is no criminal investigation.
On a campaign ‘factsheet’ about the email controversy, the website includes this Q&A:
“Is Department of Justice conducting a criminal inquiry into Clinton’s email use?
No. As the Department of Justice and Inspectors General made clear, the IGs made a security referral. This was not criminal in nature as misreported by some in the press. The Department of Justice is now seeking assurances about the storage of materials related to Clinton’s email account.”
Clinton has voiced confidence all along that, no matter what it’s called, the probe will not result in an indictment.
She said so again on Wednesday during an interview with Fox News.
“That is not going to happen. There is no basis for it, and I'm looking forward to this being wrapped up as soon as possible,” she said.
The Wall Street Journal reported overnight that investigators handling the “criminal probe” are focusing on emails that discussed drone strikes in Pakistan.