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'Clinton Cash' author: Obama endorsement of Clinton will have 'chilling effect' on FBI

Hillary Clinton stands with Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden on September 12, 2012 as he delivers a statement on the attacks in Benghazi. (White House/YouTube)

The White House dismissed concerns that President Obama's endorsement of Hillary Clinton will influence FBI and Justice Department officials conducting an investigation of Clinton's email setup, but at least one prominent Clinton critic believes it could have a "chilling effect" on the probe.

The FBI is looking into the private email server that Clinton used when she was secretary of state to determine whether classified information was mishandled. Although officials have said the November election will not affect the timing of any decisions, agents have begun interviewing some of Clinton's former top aides, which experts say suggests the investigation is nearing its end.

Clinton has repeatedly insisted there is no chance she will face indictment over her actions and the outcome of the case will not affect her campaign.

At the White House briefing Thursday, Fox News reporter James Rosen asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the potential conflict of interests created by Obama's public and forceful endorsement of Clinton to be the next president earlier that day.

"I wonder if you could address for us the potential conflict of interest that might exist," Rosen said, "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 now have just heard how the president wants to see this case resolved, in essence."

In response, Earnest stated that President Obama is committed to the investigation being conducted without political influence. He repeated an argument the administration has made before, that the investigation is being conducted by career prosecutors and law enforcement officers, not political appointees.

"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," Earnest said.

Rosen pressed Earnest on whether those career employees may still be swayed by knowing how Obama wants the case resolved.

"This is the reason that we actually ask career federal prosecutors to take the lead on these kinds of matters," Earnest said. "They're the ones who conduct this investigation. They don't have political jobs."

That assurance may not go far enough for some.

One government watchdog who has studied the Clintons extensively said the endorsement was either an act of "hubris" or a demonstration by Obama that he does not care what the FBI does.

"There's nothing to be gained by endorsing Hillary Clinton at this point and time in June as opposed to in August, other than the fact that there's an FBI investigation going on at this time," Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute, told Sinclair Friday.

Schweizer is the author of "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich," a book chronicling alleged conflicts of interest caused by the millions of dollars in donations and speaking fees the Clintons have received since 2000.

"The timing is horrible," he said of Obama's endorsement. "The optics are horrible. And you're not going to convince me, I don't think anybody's going to convince me, that this is not going to have some sort of chilling effect on the FBI."

According to Kendra Arnold, general counsel for the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), the pressure on investigators from the White House was already there, but Obama's endorsement makes it worse.

"Clearly, I think by President Obama endorsing Hillary Clinton, it does indicate that he does have a desired outcome in the case," she said.

Even if the career prosecutors do their jobs impeccably, she observed, the final decision on prosecution would come down to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, an Obama appointee.

Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, believes there are no rules that would prevent Obama from endorsing a former cabinet member who is facing an FBI investigation. However, he sees cause for apprehension about its influence on that investigation since political appointees would eventually be involved in reviewing any FBI referral for prosecution.

"With an ongoing criminal investigation in the field, the endorsement includes a statement that the President believes that it is essential for Hillary Clinton to win the White House," he said. "That can make lower political appointees uneasy."

Obama's support for the Democratic nominee was already fairly clear, but holding off on a formal endorsement until later in the summer would have diminished the risk of a conflict, even if it would be less beneficial politically.

"In my view, it would have been more prudent for the President to wait at least until after the nomination at the convention to take this step," Turley said.

A former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush disagrees.

"When [Obama] endorses, he endorses in his capacity as the leader of the Democratic Party...There's a clear distinction between the political and the official," said Richard Painter, now a professor at University of Minnesota Law School.

Since leaving the Bush administration in 2007, Painter has advocated for tighter restrictions on partisan activity by anyone in the Justice Department to eliminate concerns about possible conflicts. He sees a difference between political activity by those officials and activity by the president, though.

"This is probably mostly a question of appearances," said Painter, who advised Bush during the investigation that led to charges against vice presidential aide Scooter Libby. "I think it's extremely unlikely that anything happening here would affect career prosecutors."

In the event that prosecutors wanted to proceed with a case against Clinton and were overruled by political appointees, he expects that situation would explode very publicly.

After the endorsement Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) renewed a call for a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case, a demand that was echoed by Trump supporters on Twitter.

The White House and the Justice Department have resisted such suggestions in the past.

Similar complaints of undue influence on the investigation have been raised when Obama said in an interview that he did not believe Clinton's actions damaged national security and when Earnest said he did not think investigation was focused on Clinton.

In both instances, the administration maintained that neither of them had been briefed on the state of the FBI investigation and they had no direct knowledge of it. The Justice Department has insisted that policies are in place to protect the integrity of the investigation by career professionals.

Turley said he has long advocated for the use of special counsels in investigations involving current or former high-ranking administration officials.

"A special counsel would avoid the appearance of a conflict particularly after the president's endorsement and prior statements downplaying the alleged violations," Turley said.

Painter is not convinced that is necessary.

"There are an awful lot of investigations that involve people who are politically connected to the president," he said, and they cannot bring a special counsel in on all of them.

To Painter, that would be an admission that the existing system of career prosecutors serving under political appointees cannot be relied upon. If we lack confidence in the Justice Department in a case like this, he said, then we lack confidence in the Justice Department itself.

Indeed, Arnold, from FACT, believes that confidence is lost.

"There is no way for the American public to have confidence in the investigation in this climate," she said. She argued that the endorsement makes the need for a special counsel even more urgent.

The email controversy has bogged down Clinton's presidential campaign since her setup was first revealed to the public last year. About 55,000 pages of emails were released to the public, but more than 2,000 were found to contain classified information. Clinton deleted about 30,000 messages that her attorneys deemed to be personal.

Clinton has maintained that she used a personal email address instead of a State Department account for the sake of convenience, but she has also admitted it was a bad decision.

A Fox News poll released Thursday found 60 percent of voters believe Clinton is lying about her emails, and Republicans have attacked her over the issue constantly. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has made it one of the centerpieces of his argument that Clinton lacks the judgment to be commander-in-chief.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) pounced on a reference Earnest made at Thursday's press briefing to the president's belief that "any criminal investigation" should be independent of politics. In a statement, the RNC claimed those words proved that the email investigation is a criminal case despite the Clinton campaign's description of it as a "security inquiry."

However, the White House told Politico that Earnest was speaking generally and, since he has not talked to anyone at the Justice Department about the case, he does not know whether it is criminal in nature.

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