WASHINGTON – Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has struggled to drive a consistent message and consolidate the support of his own party, is honing his attack on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and the foundation bearing her last name, making it a rallying cry for fellow Republicans to get behind his campaign.
Trump began this week hammering her for the Clinton Foundation, an organization created by her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, which uses private donations to fund aid programs in developing countries.
On Monday, he called for the foundation to be shut down. On Tuesday, he called for a special prosecutor to be named to investigate the foundation.
Trump has struggled to find an attack line that fellow Republicans could rally behind. His criticism of the parents of a dead Muslim American soldier who spoke at the Democratic National Convention drew strong rebukes from many in his own party. His attacks on Clinton’s health have been dismissed as conspiracy theories.
Clinton, who leads in nearly every national and swing state opinion poll, has largely avoided an onslaught of criticism about the foundation. Democratic rival U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders did not attack her on that front during the primary campaign.
“It’s an incredible turning point in the campaign, and nothing rallies Republicans like the Clintons,” said Hogan Gidley, spokesman for the Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC, a group that can take unlimited donations and is using the money to criticize the Democrat.
The focus on the foundation is likely to build some confidence among Republicans that Trump’s campaign is healing internal divisions. Last week, Trump shook up his campaign’s top leadership, putting Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway in top jobs. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said the attacks are an early indicator of Bannon’s influence.
“This is a very fertile ground if he wants to dig himself out of this deep hole,” O’Connell said of Trump.
Raj Shah, Republican National Committee’s research director, said Republicans had been focusing on the Clinton Foundation since at least 2013 and see it as an issue that voters care about.
“They care about ethics, they care about judgment and honesty and trustworthiness among leaders. It’s certainly a point of vulnerability for Hillary Clinton,” Shah said.
Trump abandoned plans to deliver a policy speech on Thursday about immigration, hoping not to distract from the Clinton Foundation criticism that has dominated cable news coverage.
Clinton’s campaign has tried to dismiss the attack.
Clinton spokesman Robby Mook said the foundation will not shut down because of its lifesaving work, and he did not see it hurting Clinton’s lead in polls.
“This is an absurd call by Donald Trump. It is an act of desperation on his campaign given the turmoil that we’ve seen from his campaign in recent weeks,” he told MSNBC.
The foundation has long been a liability for Clinton. The organization accepted corporate and foreign donations, stoking criticism that it represented a conflict of interest while she was secretary of state. On Sunday, the foundation announced it would no longer accept foreign donations if Clinton is elected and that the group is prepared to hand off programs to other charity organizations.
Clinton suffered another blow on Monday when a judge ordered the State Department to review another 15,000 emails and determine when they should be released to the public, potentially before the Nov. 8 election.
The dual controversies of her emails and the foundation dovetailed on Monday, as conservative legal group Judicial Watch sought to make the case that previously unreleased emails provide evidence that Clinton offered access to donors to the foundation while she was secretary of state.
When Clinton took up the post in 2009, she chose to use a private email server set up in her home. She turned 55,000 pages of emails over to the State Department in 2015, which she said attorneys reviewed to determine that all were work-related. Those emails were made public in 2015 in a series of public releases by the State Department.
Following a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Director James Comey recommended no criminal charges, but said Clinton and her aides were “extremely careless” with the use of classified information in the emails. In conducting the investigation, the FBI located 15,000 documents, many which are expected to be additional emails sent or received by Clinton. The judge ruled on Monday that those emails must be reviewed and many likely released.
For Democrats, the issue of the foundation does not appear ready to go away. But they are hopeful Trump is too late in making it an issue to make a difference.
Most American voters already have an opinion of Hillary Clinton, said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who once worked for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
“The views are pretty hardened on both sides, and I don’t think anything is going to move that needle,” he said.
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