As fresh scandals engulf the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential frontrunner, President Obama's spokespeople have developed a new favorite phrase: "Ask Secretary Clinton's team."
The White House, once again, is attempting to deflect incoming fire drawn by Hillary Clinton, the newly-announced candidate. Obama is in the delicate spot of rooting for Hillary to win while distancing himself from the Clintons' penchant for scandals.
As they did when revelations first broke about Clinton's exclusive use of private email as the nation's top diplomat, Obama's aides are trying to sidestep questions about whether donations to Clinton charities influenced her decision-making at Foggy Bottom.
But this is not just a simple matter of 2016 politics, a topic far easier for the White House to dismiss.
Because Obama explicitly required his former secretary of state to disclose all donations made to the Clinton Foundation during her tenure, it's impossible to extricate the president from the mess. In an upcoming book, Peter Schweizer suggests that prominent donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation received preferential treatment from the State Department while Clinton was leading the department as Obama's first secretary of state.
The White House will continue to insist "no evidence" exists to prove Clinton's decisions at Foggy Bottom were influenced by Clinton Foundation donors — some of whom needed State Department approval to sell U.S. uranium mining assets to a Russian nuclear agency, part of the overall sale of the Canadian company Uranium One.
Team Obama will probably benefit from the fact that pay-to-play allegations are notoriously difficult to prove.
What the White House is struggling to explain, though, is how Obama could not take issue with Clinton's apparently breaking the terms of her disclosure agreement with the president. The donations in question totaled more than $2 million.
"That's the real issue I would have," said a veteran Democratic consultant with close ties to the White House. "Even under the most charitable interpretation, it looks like a member of his Cabinet played by her own rules."
But as questions pile up — and Clinton maintains her silence — those experienced in White House messaging see little motivation for Obama's surrogates to offer a thorough response to the explosive allegations.
"They have no reason to get into this conversation, it's a no-win situation for them," said Linda P. Schacht, a press official in President Jimmy Carter's White House who now teaches political communications at Lipscomb University. "I'm not sure any answer they give is going to satisfy the people asking the questions."
There have been subtle shifts in how the White House has handled the latest Clinton controversy.
At first, Obama officials simply referred all questions to the Clinton camp. Their message now is starting to blend with the rebuttal being crafted by Clinton's handlers, as they equate the allegations put forward in the forthcoming book, "Clinton Cash," to a conservative hit job.
"I've been in a position where there have been other, to put it mildly, conservative authors that have launched, written books based on what they report to be serious allegations against the president of the United States," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday. "And I'm often in the position of responding to those incidents and trying to defend the president from accusations that are not rooted or accompanied by any evidence. Right now, that is what is happening to Secretary Clinton."
Given the traction the findings by author Schweizer have gotten across the media spectrum — including a series of stories in the New York Times and the failure, so far, of Clinton's surrogates to punch any holes in his factual claims — some Democrats privately concede that the White House is trying to buy time for Clinton to put forward a more extensive defense.
"It's not like she has the benefit of the doubt right now," said the Democratic operative of Clinton, pointing to her email problems. "By extension, that makes it bad for the White House. They have got to be tired of this."
White House officials declined to elaborate on their reaction to the Clinton donations beyond what Earnest offered in recent days in public briefings.
With former Obama White House officials now in high-level posts in the Clinton campaign, including former senior counselor John Podesta and former communications director Jennifer Palmieri, some coordination is to be expected, Democrats said.
For now, Earnest is left to recycle different versions of his latest catchphrase.
"I'd refer you to the State Department or to Secretary Clinton's team, who I'm sure would be happy to talk to you about this," Earnest said in response to the first Clinton inquiry from reporters Friday.
"There is a spokesperson that Secretary Clinton has hired that can answer these questions," he said later.
"They're the ones that are responsible for responding," he concluded, much to the chagrin of reporters still pressing for answers.