ATLANTIC CITY — Hillary Clinton came here Wednesday in an attempt to turn the spotlight away from her handling of classified emails and back on rival Donald Trump’s controversial business practices. But Republicans back in Washington began assembling the political machinery to keep the email issue at center stage through the presidential election.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee focused intently on everything but the email issue, with a speech bashing Trump and a major policy shift toward the free-college pledge promised by her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Here in this resort town where Trump built casinos that went bankrupt, Clinton pointed to one of the shuttered locations as an example of what she portrayed as a record of selfish and unethical business practices.
“When everything falls apart, people get hurt and Donald gets paid,” Clinton said, with faded letters spelling “Trump Plaza” on the building behind her.
She made no mention of the findings of FBI Director James B. Comey, who announced this week that he was not recommending criminal charges in the email case but that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her treatment of classified information. The Justice Department formally closed the inquiry Wednesday.
But Republicans signaled that they would continue to push hard through committee hearings and other means to make the email controversy a central part of their critique of Clinton as untrustworthy and unreliable.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that he believes the presumptive Democratic nominee received preferential treatment from the FBI and that she should be denied classified briefings because she was “so reckless” in her handling of her emails. Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee scheduled a snap hearing on Thursday to question Comey about his findings.
Republicans were also buoyed by an announcement Wednesday from the Trump campaign that it had exceeded expectations by raising $51 million with the GOP in June. Although short of Clinton’s $68 million total for the same month, the number eases concerns among many Republicans about Trump’s fundraising potential and signals that he could hold his own with her in the money race.
Taken together, the events suggest a fiercely competitive contest in which Republicans will do everything they can to keep attention trained on Clinton’s actions and misstatements related to her emails — while Clinton will do everything possible to avoid the issue and campaign as a capable, can-do leader.
The boardwalk event here was a rare moment of political theater for Clinton, especially given that New Jersey’s solidly Democratic status means it almost certainly will not be competitive in November. Instead, the location was used to hammer home her accusation that Atlantic City was typical of Trump’s approach — using it as a cash cow to extract wealth for himself before leaving the town and its workers high and dry. Showing Trump as unscrupulous is a bedrock of Clinton’s strategy against him.
Republicans — including some who did not want him to top their ticket — see the email issue as an opportunity to turn that argument back on Clinton.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Trump supporter, said he is eager to keep the focus on Clinton and her emails and said Ryan is justified in pressing for more information on the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges.
“I think there’s a lot of questions to be answered,” Cole said. “I thought Director Comey laid out the case awfully well yesterday. I disagree with the decision from what I know, but it would help a lot to have some real hearings about this.”
But Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon called Ryan’s assertion of preferential treatment “absurd” and said the hearing is a continuation of GOP efforts to dig up dirt akin to the closed Benghazi probe.
“For weeks Republicans have said they trusted FBI Director Comey to lead an independent review into Secretary Clinton’s emails, but now they are second-guessing his judgment because his findings do not align with their conspiracy theories,” Fallon said.
The lapses concern Clinton’s private email system, little known outside her circle of aides and contacts when she was secretary of state. The system was maintained at her New York home and used for both government and personal communication.
The State Department inspector general earlier found serious fault with Clinton’s decision to set up and maintain the system as she did. Now, the FBI said this week that Clinton opened the door to possible breaches of government secrets, although it had not found evidence of any.
Ryan said the director of national intelligence should deny Clinton the standard top-level briefings given to the two party’s presidential nominees. The speaker, who was his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, said he was examining ways that Congress could block those briefings for Clinton once she formally secures the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia later this month.
Trump — who defended his record of bankruptcies in Atlantic City as a typical business practice that made him money — kept up his own fusillade on Clinton’s emails, venturing into terrain most other Republicans are not willing to traverse.
At a rally in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday night, Trump suggested that Clinton was offering Attorney General Loretta Lynch a “bribe” to let her off easy. Trump said he had heard on television that Clinton was floating the possibility of keeping Lynch on board in the next administration.
Clinton has never said that publicly. The New York Times reported that Democrats close to Clinton said she might opt to keep Lynch at the top of the Justice Department.
On Twitter early Wednesday, Trump also appeared to argue that the FBI’s decision not to charge Clinton in the email case was like getting away with a homicide.
“I don’t think the voters will forget the rigged system that allowed Crooked Hillary to get away with ‘murder.’ Come November 8, she’s out!” Trump tweeted.
One of Trump’s favorite talking points has been his insistence that the system is “rigged.” He applied it earlier to the Republican nominating process, decrying the arcane process of wooing delegates that favored opponents with more political experience and knowledge. Now he is using it to explain why Clinton was not charged.
“Let today be devoted to Crooked Hillary and the rigged system under which we live,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Exiting a weekly meeting between Trump campaign representatives and supportive House members Wednesday morning, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) tried to head off repeated questions from reporters about Trump’s controversial praise of Saddam Hussein by pointing to Clinton.
“I appreciate that you’re asking Trump questions, but the fact is Hillary Clinton being found above the law by this administration is the story of today,” Issa said.
Paul Kane and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.