President Obama doesn’t think Hillary Clinton actively tried to jeopardize the nation’s security.
That’s what he told Fox News Sunday in his first interview with the program since taking office, after host Chris Wallace pressed him about the Democratic presidential frontrunner’s long-running email problem.
“Can you still say flatly that she did not jeopardize America’s secrets?” Wallace asked, referring to the president’s CBS interview six months ago, when he stated confidently that her use of an unsecured server hadn’t caused any national security problems.
The president was a tiny bit cagier this time around.
“I’ve got to be careful because, as you know, there have been investigations, there are hearings,” he said. “Congress is looking at this, and I haven’t been sorting through each and every aspect of this. Here’s what I know: Hillary Clinton was an outstanding secretary of state. She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy.”
In other words, regardless of the impact of her use of a private server, she wasn’t actually trying to endanger Americans.
“And what I also know, because I handle a lot of classified information, is that there are -- there’s classified and then there’s classified,” the president continued. “There’s stuff that is really top secret, top secret and then there is stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state that you may not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you can get in open source.”
Wallace then pressed him on the issue a final time.
“But last October, you were prepared to say, ‘She hasn’t jeopardized,’” he said. “And the question is, can you still say that?”
“I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America’s national security,” he responded.
It was a slightly different tone than he took in October, when he told CBS’s 60 Minutes that her use of the private server was “not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.”
“I don’t think it posed a national security problem,” he said at the time.
The New York Times reported that those comments irked some at the FBI, where agents were working to fully determine the impact of her server use.
Former senior FBI official Ron Hosko told the paper at the time that the president’s comments would leave “a foul taste in the F.B.I.’s mouth,” and would also make agents suspect “that no matter what they find, the Justice Department will take the president’s signal and not bring a case.”
On Fox News, Wallace asked the president about suspicions that the Department of Justice wouldn’t handle the inquiry fairly.
“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,” he said.
“Full stop,” he added.
The president’s opponents on the right were quick to pounce.
“In his interview on Fox News Sunday, the president twisted himself into a pretzel spinning his former secretary of state’s mishandling of classified material saying, ‘There’s classified and then there’s classified’ before conceding that her behavior was careless,” wrote RNC spokesman Michael Short in an email blasted to media after the interview.
The president also addressed another central Republican criticism in the interview: that he hasn’t adequately communicated to the American people how concerned he is about terror attacks. The president told Wallace that his “number one priority right now is defeating ISIL.” And he added that he’s tried to do that without stoking unwarranted fears about terror attacks.
“[T]he job of the terrorists, in their minds, is to induce panic, induce fear, get societies to change who they are,” he said. “And what I’ve tried to communicate is, ‘You can’t change us. You can kill some of us, but we will hunt you down, and we will get you. And in the meantime, just as we did in Boston, after the marathon bombing, we’re going to go to a ballgame.’”
National security questions have yet to become central in the Democratic primary between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s email scandal, in particular, has yet to become a major issue in that contest, largely because Sanders said in the party’s first debate that voters were sick of hearing about her “damn emails.”
But Clinton still struggles to convince members of her own party that they can trust her. ABC News’ exit polling of Wisconsin Democratic primary voters showed that 9 out of ten held Sanders was honest and trustworthy, while less than 6 in 10 felt the same way about Clinton. Clinton lost that contest to Sanders by 13 points.