Questions about Hillary Clinton’s handling of Clinton Foundation donors during her time as secretary of state have put her on the defensive after weeks of quietly allowing Donald Trump and his controversies to dominate the headlines.
The Clinton campaign moved aggressively Wednesday to address negative story lines related to her use of a private email server while secretary of state and her handling of her family’s foundation and to redirect the attention back to Trump.
In television appearances, in rapid-fire tweets, on the radio and in numerous news releases, Clinton’s allies moved quickly to discredit news reports that suggest she improperly gave access to Clinton Foundation donors while at the State Department.
Surrogates have waxed long on the foundation’s charitable works, its lifesaving endeavors and the “unprecedented” efforts that Clinton put in place to promote transparency. In contrast, they pointed to Trump and what they described as his opaque history of business dealings and entanglements, which they said pose a real conflict of interest.
Late Wednesday night, Clinton called into CNN’s Anderson Cooper to offer a full-throated defense of her family’s foundation.
“We did provide a lot of life-saving work,” Clinton said. “I’m proud of the work that my husband started and he did.
“We provided a massive amount of information and Donald Trump doesn’t release his tax [returns] and is indebted to foreign banks and foreign lenders,” she added.
Clinton has largely stayed out of the spotlight, continuing a multiday fundraising swing on the West Coast. On Thursday, her speech in Reno, Nev., will attempt to train the campaign’s full attention on Trump and his connections to the “alt-right,” a conservative movement often associated with white nationalism.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has gone on the attack.
Before noon on Wednesday, the Trump campaign blasted out four separate emails pressuring Clinton on her foundation ties in the hope of keeping the message in the news. Uncharacteristically, most of Trump’s tweets about Clinton have also been tied to the issue.
Since the conventions, Trump has battled controversies including the overhaul of his campaign leadership, his campaign aide’s ties to a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine and an ongoing spat with the Muslim parents of a fallen U.S. soldier. Seizing on those controversies, Clinton’s campaign worked to put Trump on the defensive while largely keeping the spotlight off Clinton.
But in the past week, Clinton’s allies have been forced to acknowledge that new leadership at the top of the Trump campaign has come along with more discipline from the candidate.
“We are seeing a more disciplined Trump this last week: more teleprompters, fewer interviews,” said Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic strategist and Clinton ally.
From the podium at his rallies, Trump occasionally veers off script, but of late he has delivered carefully crafted lines of attack that paint Clinton as fostering a culture of corruption and little transparency.
“Hillary Clinton ran the State Department like a failed leader in a Third World country,” Trump said at a rally in Tampa on Wednesday, prompting chants of “lock her up!” from his supporters. “She sold favors and access in exchange for cash.
“She doesn’t do press conferences — it’s been almost 300 days!” he added.
The newly demonstrated discipline comes a week after Trump shook up his campaign leadership, putting at the helm two new aides, pollster Kellyanne Conway and conservative media denizen Steve Bannon.
Their impact has not gone unnoticed.
“What I’ve seen the last few days is not just him staying on message in terms of the message of Hillary Clinton, but he’s been doing it in a way that isn’t quite as bullish and crass as he’s been the past,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
Both Clinton and Trump go into the autumn with high disapproval ratings, but Goeas warned that it is too soon to know whether Trump’s attacks on Clinton’s foundation ties will have an impact because voters’ views of Clinton and her handling of her emails and political connections are “already baked in.”
Trump and his allies, however, smell blood in the water.
Prompted by a lawsuit filed by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, new emails were released in the past week showing that top aides at the foundation appealed to Clinton’s staff at the State Department for meetings and connections on behalf of top foundation donors.
Separately, a federal judge ruled this week that 14,900 previously undisclosed emails would be released, likely before Election Day.
The foundation’s announcement last week that it would stop accepting foreign donations if Clinton is elected president raised further questions about why those rules had not been put in place sooner.
Even with Clinton in the lead in many national and battleground state polls, the swift response by Clinton and her allies shows a recognition that the dual issues may serve as an unpleasant reminder to voters of a controversy that has dogged Clinton for more than a year.
“This is a nonprofit. None of the Clintons take a salary. There’s not personal benefit here. Nothing but good works have been done,” Rosen said. “This is the far right grasping at straws to distract from Trump’s lack of transparency.”