In attacking Clinton foundation, Trump seeks a Republican rallying cry

August 23, 2016 1:26 PM EDT

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks onstage during a campaign rally in Akron, Ohio, U.S., August 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri


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By Ginger Gibson and Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After struggling to find a consistent message and consolidate party support, Donald Trump is honing his attack on Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton and the foundation bearing her family's name in hopes of making it a rallying cry for fellow Republicans.

Trump began hammering the Democrat this week over the Clinton Foundation, an organization created by her and her husband former President Bill Clinton that funds aid programs in developing countries.

On Monday, Trump called for the foundation to be shut down and for a special prosecutor to be named to investigate it. In particular, he accused Clinton of having turned the charity into a "pay-for-play" scheme in which wealthy donors to the organization got favors from the State Department while Clinton was secretary of state from 2009-2013. The Clinton campaign denied that, saying Clinton never took any action because of donations to the foundation.

After a primary campaign that left the party bitterly divided, Trump has struggled to find an attack line that fellow Republicans can 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 ahead of the Nov. 8 election, has largely avoided criticism about the foundation, although there was a spate of media investigations last year after she announced she was running for president. Her main Democratic rival, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, did not attack her on that front during the primary campaign.

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.

Chris Collins, a Republican member of Congress, said supporters have been urging Trump to focus on Clinton.

“Anything we can do to put her character forefront in the campaign is going to help Donald Trump," Collins said in a phone interview.

Republican Chairman Reince Preibus said if Trump continues to remain "measured," he could be "tied or ahead" in the polls by the first week in September. Recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion polls have found Clinton increasing her lead over Trump during August. The latest poll, on Monday, showed Clinton at 45 percent, and Trump at 33 percent.

'ABSURD CALL'

Clinton’s campaign has pushed back at the attack. Clinton spokesman Robby Mook said the foundation will not shut down given its humanitarian 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.

Trump abandoned plans to deliver a policy speech on Thursday about immigration. The postponement came as signs of internal disagreement on his immigration policy became public, but the move also allowed him to focus on what he and his advisers see as a Clinton weakness.

The foundation has long been a potential liability for Clinton. The fact it accepted corporate and foreign donations sparked criticism that it represented a conflict of interest while Clinton 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.

Democrats are hopeful Trump is making an issue of the foundation too late for it 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.

Both Clinton and Trump have unusually high "unfavorable" ratings among voters, although Trump currently scores worse on that score, opinion polls show.

The dual controversies over the foundation and over Clinton's use of a private server and email account while secretary of state dovetailed on Monday. 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.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson, Emily Stephenson and Alana Wise in Washington; Luciana Lopez in New York; and Steve Holland in Austin, Texas; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Frances Kerry)



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