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Clinton aides try to keep focus on Trump over special counsel threat

It’s not really about her, it’s about him.

Facing the specter of a special counsel appointment to investigate the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, former Hillary Clinton aides on Tuesday tried to keep focus on what they called a dangerous step by the Justice Department to investigate President Donald Trump’s former political foe.

And they were careful to avoid getting bogged down in the thankless task of defending Clinton personally, or even in relitigating the details of the opaque 2010 Uranium One deal that is once again under scrutiny.

“Democrats’ response needs to be broader than defending Hillary Clinton on Uranium One,” said Ron Klain, a former Clinton campaign adviser who was also the final pick to serve as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration that never was. “It needs to convey that — if Trump makes good on this threat — any person out marching with their sign is at risk of having the Justice Department come and get them. That is a dangerous turn in American politics.”

On Monday night, as the Justice Department handed out a letter to House Republicans stating that it was exploring the appointment of a special counsel to investigate dealings of the Clinton Foundation, the sale of Uranium One “and other matters,” Clinton was appearing at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, to promote her campaign memoir, “Hard Choices,” in front of an audience of 4,500 fans.

The direct response from Clinton was a calculated no response. Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill, declined to comment on the letter. On her Twitter feed, Clinton ignored the news completely, even as Sessions discussed her in his daylong hearing on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Instead, she tweeted cheerily about an appearance at the University of Virginia for a Women’s Global Leadership Forum.

There were no conference calls or talking points distributed to surrogates and television talking heads to react to the news or push a set of exculpatory facts – a lay-low strategy that made sense to legal experts, for now, even in the face of what could turn out to be game-changing news for the country’s justice system.

“I don’t think they there’s any sign that any of them have any criminal exposure,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor-in-chief of Lawfare. “It doesn’t strike me as an especially acute situation for them.”

Sessions was asked about the letter Tuesday, when he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee for a day-long grilling. “‘Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel,” Sessions told Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan. He later added: “I want you all to know that if a special counsel is required I, or I’m sure anyone else in the department that had the responsibility, would name one,” and claimed he had not been influenced in any way by Trump.

The relevant question, experts said, is whether the letter and subsequent testimony were Sessions’ attempt to manage the Republican caucus on the Hill as well as his unruly boss – or if it represented what Wittes said would be “an instance of egregious political harassment. If it’s the latter, [Clinton] needs to respond to it as such. But it’s probably worth waiting to see that that is what it is.”

Indeed, it was unclear what Sessions’ intent was in directing senior federal prosecutors to look into the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Clinton-related matters. Some saw it as an obvious case of the beleaguered attorney general, fighting to keep Trump’s ongoing displeasure with his recusal from the Russia investigation at bay, running a political errand for his boss. Others applied some game theory logic and viewed it as potentially a savvy tactic to avoid having to appoint a special counsel, kicking the question to career prosecutors instead.

“It’s hard to know whether that means they’re really considering it or for Sessions to buy some room with the president,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman under President Barack Obama. His advice to Camp Clinton? “Blow it off and hope that rational heads and the rule of law prevail. At some point, though, if you’re Hillary Clinton, you won’t be surprised if there’s some investigation into you for something you’re convinced you never did. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Clinton, who coined the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” in 1998 to refer to the long, coordinated political campaign against her husband, has long seen herself as the victim of politically-motivated, baseless attacks – even in the instances when the questions raised about her behavior have been legitimate.

Meanwhile, her closest ring of confidants have grown accustomed to her center-stage role in Trump’s presidency – a useful one-woman rallying cry that still energizes the base even as the family brand fades into history – and expect that will continue for as long as Trump holds the office. Those aides saw the Justice Department’s letter on Monday as more of that same narrative, one they expect will heighten whenever Trump feels the walls closing in on him in Robert Mueller’s ongoing special investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“This is not the first time [Trump] has done this, it’s at least the fifth starting with saying he’d put her in jail,” said Philippe Reines, a former top gatekeeper to Clinton in the State Department. “If this is what he thinks he needs to keep his base happy, then everyone else – including Republicans in Congress – should see it for what it is: a president wearing jackboots.”

Using Uranium One as the target of a potential investigation, other Clinton aides said, also serves the dual-purpose of tarring Clinton and attempting to discredit Mueller, who served as FBI director in 2010 during the sale of the Uranium One company to Rosatom, a Russian nuclear agency.

But at least one former Clinton campaign official was ready to pull the fire alarms now. “Dangling [a special counsel is dangerous, period,” said Brian Fallon, who served as the campaign’s press secretary. “So long as Sessions refuses to rule out opening a political inquiry into Hillary Clinton, howling is fair. If people do not howl now, maybe Sessions will think he can open one and get away with it by convincing people he will not actually charge her.”

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