Obama defends Clinton over private email server, blames controversy on politics

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State “is not a situation in which America's national security was endangered,” President Obama said in an interview Sunday, adding that although Clinton “made a mistake,” he believes the controversy over the matter has “been ginned up … in part because of politics.”

In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that was released Sunday, Obama reiterated that he had not known about Clinton’s use of a private server for her email while she led the State Department.

“I think that it was a mistake that she has acknowledged and, you know, as a general proposition, when we're in these offices, we have to be more sensitive and stay as far away from the line as possible when it comes to how we handle information, how we handle our own personal data,” he said.

But, he added, “I don't think it posed a national security problem.”

“The fact that for the last three months this is all that's been spoken about is an indication that we're in presidential political season,” Obama said, noting that there is no evidence the private system was used to “hide something or to squirrel away information.”

Clinton’s critics have said her use of a private email server could have exposed sensitive information to foreign intelligence agencies. So far, no evidence has come to light showing that Clinton’s server was hacked. By contrast, the State Department’s official email system is known to have been penetrated at least once by Russian hackers in recent years.

Whether Clinton’s emails included any information that might have posed a security risk remains hotly contested. Two government inspectors general have said that at least some of the emails sent to her by aides included information that should have been considered classified. The State Department has questioned whether that is accurate. And some of the information at issue, even if classified, appears to have been available from non-classified sources.

The FBI is investigating whether officials who sent emails to Clinton may have mishandled classified information.

Obama also gave a spirited defense of his policies toward the civil war in Syria and commented on some of the other candidates seeking to succeed him.

On Syria, he said -- as he did at a news conference earlier this month -- that Russia’s escalating military involvement there is a sign of Russian weakness, not strength. And he suggested that many critics of his policies want to see the U.S. again involved in combat in the region.

“I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East,” he said. “The fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops -- thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars -- they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they'll suggest we're in retreat.”

Obama sidestepped a question about whether he thinks Vice President Joe Biden should enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, in which Clinton is the front-runner.

“I am going to let Joe make that decision,” Obama said. But, he added, “I don't think there's any politician at a national level that has not thought about being the president. And if you're sitting right next to the president in every meeting and, you know, wrestling with these issues, I'm sure that for him, he's saying to himself, ‘I could do a really good job.’ ”

Biden is expected to soon decide whether to run.

The president also offered a backhanded compliment to Donald Trump, who leads the Republican field, calling him “a great publicity-seeker” who “knows how to get attention.”

“I don't think he'll end up being president of the United States,” Obama said, adding that Trump had “tapped into” a “genuine anti-immigrant sentiment in the large portion of at least Republican primary voters.”

Although leaving office will be “bittersweet,” Obama said, it is “healthy” for democracy to have a “fresh perspective, new personnel and new ideas” in the White House.

Asked whether he thought he would win if the Constitution allowed him to seek a third term, Obama gave an unequivocal answer.

“Yes,” he said.

Twitter: @DavidLauter

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