WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says he believes his former secretary of state did not intentionally endanger national security in her handling of classified information. But he also says he's not trying to influence his administration's investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server.
The White House on Tuesday was under pressure to reconcile those two statements — asserting Obama's public defense of Clinton was not an attempt to meddle in an ongoing probe and that federal investigators will not be swayed by the boss' views.
"The president is committed to ensuring that individuals who are conducting criminal prosecutions do their work without influence from politicians or anybody that's involved in politics," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Earnest's reassurances came amid growing criticism that Obama had put his finger on the scale with recent comments describing Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state as mere "carelessness." In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Obama seemed to embrace the Clinton campaign's suggestion that the root of the controversy is over-classification — that too much government information is classified by bureaucrats after the fact. And most notably, Obama weighed in with his views on Clinton's intent.
"She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy," he said of Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
The FBI is investigating whether sensitive information that flowed through Clinton's email server was mishandled.
There are also at least 38 civil lawsuits, including one filed by The Associated Press, seeking records related to Clinton's time as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
It wasn't the first time that Obama has suggested that he doesn't think there's much to the email controversy. In October, he said flatly he didn't think the set-up posed a national security problem.
Each time he weighs in, it raises legal experts' eyebrows and roils political adversaries. Republicans this week have suggested Obama is signaling prosecutors to go easy, and using a different standard for Clinton that has been applied to other administration officials investigated for mishandling information, like former CIA Director David Petraeus.
The White House routinely dodges questions about ongoing Justice Department investigations, saying it does not want to appear to be trying to influence the outcome. Obama's decision to twice express his thoughts seems to cast aside some of that caution in favor of defending a political ally and former administration official.
"It does raise concerns for prosecutors," said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University and a former federal prosecutor. "If it's a close case, how am I to judge whether to pursue charges when the president has said he doesn't think there's anything there? I don't think it will prejudice any decision but it certainly gives the appearance of that."
The White House says Obama's comments as based solely on publicly available information. The president has not asked for or received a briefing "on the confidential elements of the ongoing investigation," Earnest said. In the interview, Obama said, "I haven't been sorting through each and every aspect of this."
The president made assurances he would not intervene.
"I do not talk to the attorney general about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line, and always have maintained it," he said. "I guarantee that there is no political influence in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department, or the FBI, not just in this case, but in any case."