WASHINGTON — FBI agents have renewed questions about the dealings of the Clinton Foundation after calls from President Donald Trump and top Republicans for the Justice Department to take a fresh look at politically charged accusations of corruption, people familiar with the investigation said Friday.
Agents have interviewed people connected to the foundation about whether any donations were made in exchange for political favors while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, the people said. Career prosecutors had shut down the investigation in 2016 for lack of evidence.
During the presidential campaign, Trump branded his Democratic rival “Crooked Hillary” and promised to send her to jail if he won. He briefly struck a more magnanimous tone after the election, however, and said he had no interest in pushing for a prosecution.
But as his legal problems have mounted, Trump has returned to his attacks on Clinton. With four former aides facing federal charges and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, investigating him and his campaign, Trump has openly called for Clinton to be investigated and for one of her top aides, Huma Abedin, to be imprisoned.
It is unclear exactly when the FBI renewed its interest in the Clinton Foundation, or whether agents were instructed by anyone in Washington to start investigating again.
However, the probe’s very existence already has led to accusations from Democrats that the Republican administration is pursuing old, dead cases to punish political enemies. A continued investigation of Clinton could be viewed, particularly by Republicans, as the Justice Department being evenhanded in its approach to political cases.
Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director, noted that the bureau has been thrust into a “political minefield,” with pundits criticizing its every move.
As Mueller’s investigation has intensified, the president and his conservative allies have mounted blistering counterattacks trying to discredit the FBI and federal prosecutors. Trump has described the investigation as a witch hunt and accused FBI leadership under the bureau’s former director, James Comey, of being biased toward Clinton.
Some congressional Republicans have sought to cast doubt on a contentious dossier of unsubstantiated claims about Trump. On Friday, two influential Republican senators asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, a former British spy, lied to federal authorities.
Trump’s calls to investigate Clinton break with long-standing presidential practice. Since the Watergate scandal, the Justice Department has conducted criminal investigations largely free of political influence from the White House.
Trump, by contrast, has declared that he has an “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”
The Clinton Foundation dismissed the investigation as politicized.
“Time after time, the Clinton Foundation has been subjected to politically motivated allegations, and time after time these allegations have been proven false,” Craig Minassian, a spokesman for the foundation, said in a statement.
Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, added: “Let’s call this what it is: A sham. This is a philanthropy that does life-changing work, which Republicans have tried to turn into a political football. It’s disgraceful, and should be concerning to all Americans.”
The foundation, which was formed in 1997 during Bill Clinton’s presidency and has raised roughly $2 billion, has been a repeated target for Republicans.
In 2015, conservative author Peter Schweizer published Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, an investigation of donations to the foundation made by foreign entities.
Schweizer is the president of the Government Accountability Institute, where Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was a founder and the executive chairman.
The Justice Department, in a letter sent in November to the House Judiciary Committee, said prosecutors would examine allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to a 2010 decision by former President Barack Obama’s administration to allow a Russian nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that owned access to uranium in the United States, as well as other issues.
The letter appeared to be a direct response to Trump’s statement days earlier that he was disappointed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not investigating Hillary Clinton. An administration official said the FBI had taken steps related to the foundation investigation before the Justice Department sent the letter to the Judiciary Committee.
In the letter, the Justice Department wrote that the attorney general had directed “senior prosecutors to evaluate certain issues.” Those prosecutors would make “recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of a special counsel.”
The Clinton Foundation probe dates back to 2015, when FBI agents in Los Angeles, New York, Little Rock and Washington began looking at those who had made donations to the charity, based largely on news accounts, according to people familiar with the matter.
At the direction of Mark Giuliano, deputy director of the FBI from late 2013 until early 2016, the investigations were consolidated at FBI headquarters in Washington and placed under the supervision of career public-integrity prosecutors.
In 2016, Justice Department prosecutors rejected a request from FBI agents to expand and intensify their work. They asked that the bureau not take any investigative steps that could become public, out of worry that could affect the impending election.
The investigation resumed some time after the election, with the FBI’s Little Rock office taking the lead, said one person familiar with the matter.
Still, there was some skepticism inside the Justice Department that it would ever produce charges.
“It was never a great case, but it’s still being worked,” another person familiar with the probe said.
All six members of the Arkansas congressional delegation declined to weigh in on the news. So did U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland, who serves the Eastern District of Arkansas.
A spokesman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Graham Senor, said the investigation appears to be a politically motivated attempt to shift attention from Trump’s legislative setbacks and the Russia investigation.
“It seems like a ridiculous waste of time, resources and money,” Senor said.
Information for this article was contributed by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times; by Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post; by Sadie Gurman and Eric Tucker of The Associated Press; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 01/06/2018