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White House refers to Hillary Clinton email probe as 'criminal' hours after Obama endorsement

Hillary Clinton faces the possibility of prosecution for using a private email server at her New York home for classified documents while she US Secretary of State (AP Photo/John Locher)
Hillary Clinton faces the possibility of prosecution for using a private email server at her New York home for classified documents while she US Secretary of State (AP Photo/John Locher)

White House press secretary Josh Earnest referred to the probe into Hillary Clinton's private email system as a possible "criminal investigation," just one hour after President Barack Obama endorsed her to become his successor.

Following Obama's video endorsement a reporter asked the president's spokesman about a potential conflict of interest.

"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 now have just heard how the president wants to see this case resolved, in essence. Isn't there some conflict there?" the reporter asked.

Earnest said that Obama was committed to keeping his hands off the probe, trusting career prosecutors to follow evidence wherever it leads.

He said: "I think that those career prosecutors understand that they have a job do to. And that that job that they are supposed to do, which is to follow the facts, to pursue the evidence to a logical conclusion, that that is a job that they are responsible for doing without any sort of political interference.

"And the president expects them to do that job. And look, this is the reason that we actually ask career federal prosecutors to take the lead on these kinds of matters. They're the ones who conduct this investigation.

"They are not -- they don't have political jobs. They have career jobs as law enforcement officers and as prosecutors and as investigators. And 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."

It is believed to be the first time the White House has made such an acknowlegement.

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Emails between US diplomats in Pakistan and Washington that referred to drone strikes are believed to be central to the FBI's investigation involving the Democratic presidential nominee, according to the The Wall Street Journal.

The 2011 and 2012 emails were sent via the "low side" - government slang for a computer system for unclassified matters - as part of a secret arrangement that gave the US State Department more of a voice in whether a CIA drone strike went ahead, according to congressional and law enforcement officials briefed on the FBI probe, the Journal said.

Some of the emails were then forwarded by Clinton's aides to her personal email account and private server, when she was secretary of state, the officials said, according to the WSJ.

Meanwhile ABC News reports that newly released State Department emails reveal that a major Clinton Foundation donor Rajiv K. Fernando was placed on a sensitive government intelligence advisory board even though he had no obvious experience in the field.

The emails issue has dogged Clinton for more than a year. An internal report found that she broke multiple government rules by using a private server rather than more secure official communication systems.

In January, the intelligence community deemed some of Clinton’s emails “too damaging" to national security to release under any circumstances.

When asked about the possibility of being criminally charged over the email issue, Clinton has repeatedly said “that is not going to happen.’’

Last month House speaker Paul Ryan said: “No public official is above the law. Secretary Clinton’s actions were at best negligent and at worst harmful to our national security. The state department should work to ensure that all employees strictly comply with the law, and follow the IG’s recommendations to strengthen its record-keeping system.”

On Thursday Donald Trump took to Twitter to slam Clinton and Obama following the president's endorsement. He tweeted: "Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama - but nobody else does!"

A Twitter slanging match ensued.

Clinton responded with a popular Twitter meme: "Delete your account". Trump retorted: "How long did it take your staff of 823 people to think that up--and where are your 33,000 emails that you deleted?"

At a Democratic debate last year rival Bernie Sanders said: "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!"

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