White House acknowledges that the Clinton probe is “criminal”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed today during a press briefing that the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server is a “criminal Investigation.” Clinton has steadfastly denied this.

The acknowledgement occurred during a colloquy about whether President Obama’s endorsement of Clinton while the FBI is investigating her raises a potential conflict, a matter I discussed here. The exchange went as follows:

REPORTER: Previously the President has used one public forum or another to comment on the FBI investigation into Mrs. Clinton and her e-mail conduct. At one point he stated that as far as he could see there was no damage done to national security. You yourself from this podium have suggested that the investigation wasn’t trending toward any focus on Mrs. Clinton herself. I wonder if you could address for us the potential conflict of interest that might exist when the President of the United States, the head of the executive branch, is openly saying ‘I want this woman to succeed me in the Oval Office’ and you have other employees of the executive branch, career prosecutors, FBI agents working this case who have now just heard how the President wants to see this case resolved in essence. Isn’t there some conflict there?

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: James, there’s not. You noted instances where the President was asked about the FBI investigations. And in each of those answers the President made clear that that is being conducted independent of any sort of political interference. That is a principle that the President is resolutely committed. You mentioned my comments, my comments were actually also in response to a question and were a reference to a published reports of comments from FBI officials that — about the direction of the — of the investigation.

But, look, the reason that the President feels confident that he can go out and make this endorsement and record a video in which he describes his strong support for Secretary Clinton’s campaign is that he knows the people who are conducting the investigation aren’t going to be swayed by any sort of political interference. They aren’t going to be swayed by political forces. They know that their investigation should be guided by the facts and that they should follow the evidence where it leads. The President has complete confidence that that’s exactly what they’ll do.

REPORTER: So when a career prosecutor or an FBI agent working on the Clinton investigation hears this President speak openly about how he wants Hillary Clinton to succeed him, you don’t think that that career prosecutor or that FBI agent takes that as some indication as to how the President wants to see this case resolved?

EARNEST: No. I think those career prosecutors understand that they have job to do, and that that job they are supposed to do — which is to follow the facts, to pursue the evidence to a logical conclusion — that’s a job that they are responsible for doing without any sort of political interference. And the president expects them to do that job, this is the reason that we actually ask career federal prosecutors to take the lead on these kinds of matters.

They don’t have political jobs. They have career jobs as law enforcement officers and as prosecutors and investigators. That’s what their responsibility is. And 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 and that people should be treated the same way before the law regardless of their political influence, regardless of their political party, regardless of their political stature and regardless of what political figure has endorsed them.

REPORTER: Has President Obama ever discussed the Department of Justice investigation with Mrs. Clinton?

EARNEST: He has not.

(Emphasis added)

RNC spokesman Michael Short commented:

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.’

He’s right.

As for Earnest’s response to the “conflict of interest” question, he may well be right that career prosecutors will not be swayed by Obama’s endorsement as they conduct their investigation (he may also be wrong as to one or more prosecutor). But Loretta Lynch is no longer a career prosecutor; she’s an Obama appointee and, as such, holds what Earnest referred to as a “political job.”

In any event, Earnest has smashed whatever might have been left of Clinton’s claim that she’s not under criminal investigation.