Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) traveled the state Tuesday declaring himself innocent amid an ongoing federal investigation of his 2013 campaign and personal finances, as supporters and critics alike puzzled over its impact.
McAuliffe, 59, plowed ahead with a full day of events across Virginia scheduled before news broke Monday about the FBI investigation into his finances.
Asked for his reaction, McAuliffe offered one word: “Shock.” He said no one from the Justice Department notified him or his administration about the ongoing public-integrity probe.
“No one had outreached to us,” he told reporters at the first of three appearances as he traversed the state by helicopter. “Listen, you get leaks and things happen in the business. As I say, I’m very confident.”
Later in the day, McAuliffe said he was willing to talk to investigators and instructed his attorneys to contact them, but no meetings are scheduled.
In Richmond, Republicans, who have had a tense relationship with McAuliffe, largely reserved judgment. One said they were mindful of the adage about living in glass houses after former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell’s recent public-corruption scandal.
But nationally, Republicans pounced on news of the probe, saying it reflects poorly on McAuliffe and his longtime friend, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, whose use of email has attracted its own ongoing federal investigation.
Whether or not the FBI investigation of McAuliffe ultimately results in charges, political observers say the perception of misconduct could taint his brand as a tireless dealmaker and economic-development guru.
In the short term, the investigation bolsters the “narrative that Governor McAuliffe is someone who pushes boundaries and is the ultimate salesman,” said Charles E. “Chuck” James, a former chief deputy attorney general in Virginia under Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican who lost to McAuliffe in 2013.
After a bill-signing in a green meadow at the state arboretum Tuesday morning, the governor took off for Alexandria to tout funding reentry services for former inmates and then Fairfax, where he signed election administration bills. As the day wore on, McAuliffe’s press office produced the usual flurry of news releases.
“I’m full out in force and will continue to be full out in force,” he told reporters in Alexandria. “Investigations happen.”
Finally, McAuliffe went to the U.S. Capitol for his annual closed-door meeting with Republican and Democratic members of the congressional delegation. According to four members of Congress in the room, McAuliffe did not mention the investigation.
Fellow Democrats defended McAuliffe but acknowledged they knew little. Outside the meeting, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) said, “I don’t have anything to say, because I don’t know any more than what I read.”
“I’ve known the Governor for nearly two decades,” Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democrats, said in a statement, “he said there was no wrongdoing and we’re confident this will get cleared up quickly.”
State Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said: “I really don’t think there’s any there there. I’m a little suspicious of the motive of whoever leaked this at this particular moment in time. This is probably politically motivated and designed to make life more difficult for the Clinton campaign and Governor McAuliffe.”
Whatever the motivation, Republicans ran with it.
“Not only is this FBI investigation another reminder of the kind of corruption and sleaze the Clintons and their friends traffic in, it raises additional questions about the legitimacy of the Clintons’ charitable enterprises,” RNC spokesman Garren Shipley said in a statement.
RNC communications director Sean Spicer tweeted the CNN report with this: “Well, we all saw this coming,” and then jabbed McAuliffe and Clinton, saying since they’re both under FBI investigation “maybe they got a Groupon?”
Asked about the attacks, McAuliffe said, “So what?”
The Clinton campaign is relying on McAuliffe to help her win Virginia in November. Although Virginia has just 13 electoral votes, it is one of a handful of crucial swing states that could decide the race for the White House.
McAuliffe said the investigation had nothing to do with Clinton. “I’m governor now — I’m not her campaign chairman anymore,” he said.
But presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is likely to use the investigation to club McAuliffe the way he has criticized Clinton over her emails, said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor.
“Trump has been a master at exploiting the potential issues that his opponents may harbor, real or imagined,” Holsworth said.
CNN first reported that investigators are looking into a six-figure contribution that Chinese businessman Wang Wenliang made to McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign through his U.S. businesses.
Attorneys for McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign carefully reviewed all donations, the governor said. “Our legal team, every check that came into the campaign was vetted and they feel, and they do to this day, very confident the guy’s a legitimate donor,” he said Tuesday.
Many details of the federal probe, including what prompted it, remain unclear, and one official said there is skepticism among prosecutors about whether it will lead to charges. A federal official told The Washington Post federal investigators are looking broadly at donations to McAuliffe and at his personal finances — and are interested in foreign sources of income.
The federal inquiry includes a period before McAuliffe was elected and when he was serving as an unpaid director for the Clinton Foundation. Wang has also donated to the foundation, giving $2 million.
McAuliffe said it should not be surprising that he shares donors with the foundation because he has been close to the Clintons for years.
“We have a lot of the same friends,” he said. “Those that give to the Clinton Foundation are good friends of mine for years and years.”
Neither the foundation nor the presidential campaign is a target of the probe, an official told The Post. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation.
McAuliffe defended the work of the foundation and the former president.
“They have really done great, spectacular work to help people’s lives,” he said. “That’s what he’s focused on and he’s done a great job, and I’ve honestly been very proud to be part of it.”
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.