The FBI is investigating donations to the Clinton Foundation - but will charges follow?
The FBI has been quietly investigating the Clinton Foundation for months, reviving a probe that was dialled back during the 2016 election amid tensions between Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents about the politically charged case, according to people familiar with the matter.
The investigation is being run out of the FBI’s field office in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the foundation has offices in the William J Clinton Presidential Centre, the people said.
Agents are trying to determine if any donations made to the foundation were linked to official acts when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, these people said.
It was not immediately clear what specific donations or interactions agents were scrutinising, and there was some scepticism inside both the Justice Department and the FBI the case would ultimately lead to any charges.
The very existence of such a probe is likely to lead to accusations from Democrats that the Republican administration is pursuing old, dead cases to punish political enemies.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged the Justice Department to prosecute Clinton and her aides.
But while the Clinton Foundation investigation was effectively stopped in 2016, that stoppage at the time was described by people familiar with the matter as temporary.
That’s because Justice Department officials were concerned that if details of the probe were to become public, it would appear that investigators were trying to hurt Clinton’s chances in the election.
In a statement, Clinton Foundation spokesman Craig Minassian said: “Time after time, the Clinton Foundation has been subjected to politically motivated allegations, and time after time these allegations have been proven false. None of this has made us waver in our mission to help people.
“The Clinton Foundation has demonstrably improved the lives of millions of people across America and around the world while earning top ratings from charity watchdog groups in the process.
“There are real issues in our society needing attention that the Clinton Foundation works hard to solve every day. So we’re going to stay focused on what really matters.”
Republicans, in particular, have long raised concerns about what they viewed as corruption and conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation, in particular Hillary Clinton’s dealings with its donors while she was secretary of state.
The Clinton Foundation probe dates back to 2015, when FBI agents in Los Angeles, New York, Little Rock and Washington, began looking at a variety of different figures who had made donations to the charity, based largely on news accounts, according to people familiar with the matter.
In 2016, Justice Department prosecutors rejected a request from FBI agents to expand and intensify the foundation investigation, these people said.
Republican lawmakers had called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions in July and again in September to explore various Clinton Foundation dealings, as well as other matters, by appointing a special counsel to look into Clinton-related issues.
In November, the Justice Department wrote that Sessions would direct senior prosecutors to look into the cases about which they raised concerns and hinted that some might already be under investigation.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote that part of what the department would do was assess whether “any matters currently under investigation require further resources,” though he said his letter should not be construed as confirming or denying any probe.
By that time, according to the people familiar with the matter, agents were already investigating the Clinton Foundation.
The Clinton Foundation inquiry is separate from the FBI’s high-profile investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, though Republicans have said that probe, too, needs to be reopened.
The email investigation focused on whether Clinton or her aides mishandled classified information by using the private server.
Then-FBI Director James Comey recommended in July 2016 that the case be closed without charges, and though work on it briefly resumed in October – soon before the presidential election – he ultimately did not change his mind, and the Justice Department endorsed his recommendation.
Justice Department officials have said senior prosecutors are also reviewing investigative records on the Clinton email case to see if any of the concerns raised by Republican lawmakers merit appointment of a special counsel for further investigation.
“Let’s call this what it is: a sham,” Hillary Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said. “This is a philanthropy that does life-changing work, which Republicans have tried to turn into a political football.
“It began with a long-debunked project spearheaded by [former Trump adviser] Steve Bannon during the presidential campaign.
“It continues with Jeff Sessions doing Trump’s bidding by heeding his calls to meddle with a department that is supposed to function independently.
“The goal is to distract from the indictments, guilty pleas, and accusations of treason from Trump’s own people at the expense of our justice system’s integrity. It’s disgraceful and should be concerning to all Americans.”
The calls for a special counsel to investigate Clinton-related matters and the FBI have intensified on the right as a separate investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, explores whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election and whether Trump himself might have tried to obstruct justice in that inquiry.
The Clinton Foundation has raised billions of dollars since it was formed and generally receives high marks from philanthropy watchdog organisations.
But, because of its global donor base and Hillary Clinton’s former position as America’s top diplomat, it also faced questions about contributions from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria.