The president's remarks came several days after FBI Director James B. Comey's surprise announcement Friday that agents would review thousands of emails potentially connected to Clinton that were discovered as part of a separate inquiry into former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who is married to a high-ranking Clinton aide, Huma Abedin.
"I've made a very deliberate effort to make sure that I don't look like I'm meddling in what are supposed to be independent processes for making these assessments," Obama said. Of Clinton, he added: "Setting aside the particulars of this case, I know that she is somebody who has always looked out for the interests of America and the American people first."
Obama had not mentioned the case during recent appearances at Clinton campaign rallies in Florida and Ohio. This week, press secretary Josh Earnest said the White House would neither “defend nor criticize” Comey's actions. Earnest also referred to the FBI chief as a man of integrity and good character.
But Comey's disclosure, made in a notice to Congress that leaked to reporters, has prompted strong criticism of the FBI from Democrats and some Republican lawmakers who have questioned whether Comey violated Justice Department policies by making a decision so close to Election Day that risked shaking up a political campaign.
“The president doesn't believe that [Comey] is secretly strategizing to benefit one candidate or one political party,” Earnest told reporters at the White House on Monday. “He's in a tough spot, and he's the one who will be in a position to defend his actions in the face of significant criticism from a variety of legal experts, including individuals who served in senior Department of Justice positions in administrations led by presidents in both parties.”
Aboard Air Force One on Obama's trip to a Clinton rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, another White House spokesman insisted that "nothing changed" on the White House view of Comey despite Obama's remarks in the interview. The president does "take seriously the longstanding norms and customs" that have historically limited what law enforcement can say about a pending investigation, the spokesman, Eric Schultz, said.
"You will see the president went out of his way to say he wasn't going to comment on any specific investigation," he added.
Though the race between Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump already had been narrowing, according to public polls, Clinton has lost more of her lead since Comey's announcement; polls on Wednesday showed the two candidates in a dead heat nationally. A new Washington Post-ABC News Tracking Poll finds Trump now holds an edge on which candidate is honest and trustworthy, while 59 percent disapproved of Clinton's handling of her email on a personal server while serving as secretary of state.
In July, Comey said the FBI's investigation into 30,000 State Department emails that passed through Clinton's private server found that 110 contained classified information at the time she sent or received them, and a "very small number" included markings as such. He called Clinton and her aides "extremely careless" in their use of email, and suggested that hostile foreign governments could have gained access to them. But he recommended against criminal prosecution, saying there was no evidence that Clinton and her team had intentionally mishandled the information.
Obama's interview with NowThis was scheduled as part of a final week campaign blitz as the president seeks to help Clinton by boosting Democratic voter turnout among young people and other groups that heavily supported his victories in 2008 and 2012.