Obama administration grumbling over Clinton damage control

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Washington (CNN)After days of answering questions from reporters about the propriety of Hillary Clinton's use of private email to conduct official business at the State Department, administration officials are starting to voice frustrations that they are doing damage control for a campaign in waiting.

As Clinton and her team struggle to answer questions about the email system, much of the task of responding to the growing email controversy has fallen to the White House and the State Department. Not surprisingly, top officials within the Obama administration are privately complaining staffers are simply spending too much energy on the matter. One exasperated official said the Clinton clean-up operation had become as time consuming as more pressing foreign policy crises.
"It would be nice," if Clinton's staffers engaged more on the issue, one senior administration official said.
    State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, with a tinge of frustration in her voice, reminded reporters Friday that she doesn't represent Clinton.
    "I'm not the spokesperson for her office, people may have been confused about that this week," she said.
    Some of the dismay within the State Department could be read on Secretary John Kerry's face when he was asked about the controversy on Thursday in Saudi Arabia.
    "Let me check on that when I actually have time to pay attention to such an important issue, when I get home," Kerry deadpanned.
    A White House official confirmed Thursday that the West Wing had been in touch with the former Secretary's aides to "confirm facts and let them know what we planned to say."
    The official noted "there is still no law on the books" requiring the use of government email for official business. The question is "whether or not the emails were preserved — which is what they said they've done," the official added, pointing out the responsibility for full disclosure rests with Clinton.
    State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest both fielded an array of questions at separate briefings this week. Each repeated the administration's message that department policy did not explicitly preclude Clinton from using private email for government purposes while she was at State.
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    But administration officials added the Secretary only came into compliance with document preservation requirements when her team turned over 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department last year. Now the State Department is reviewing which of those documents can be released publicly.
    "We are not going to prejudge the outcome of the review of Secretary Clinton's 55000 pages of emails," a senior State Department official said.
    However, Harf and Earnest also both noted there are some questions best left to Clinton's pre-campaign staff, such as whether she had, in fact, turned over all of the necessary emails.
    When asked whether the Secretary's private email use was properly safeguarded, Harf directed the question to Clinton's aides.
    "I think her office can address the issues about security. I think they're probably most appropriate to do so. So I can't really speak to those kinds of claims," Harf said.
    As for the question of whether taxpayers footed the bill for Clinton's private email system, Earnest asked the reporter to check in at Clinton's office.
    "You should check with Secretary Clinton's team. I don't know the answer to that. I'm not aware of all the details of the arrangement," Earnest said.
    But there's a problem with that advice: Clinton's office is not taking many calls these days, in what appears to be a concerted effort to allow the email storm to pass before she declares her expected intention to run for president.
    "I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible," Clinton tweeted late Wednesday night. Beyond that, her aides have offered only a few brief on-the-record explanations.
    "For government business, she emailed [State Department staff] on their Department accounts, with every expectation they would be retained," Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said in a statement earlier this week. "When the Department asked former Secretaries last year for help ensuring their emails were in fact retained, we immediately said yes."
    A handful of Clinton defenders have cautiously stepped forward to fill the void. "Hillary will at some point need to say why she didn't use an official address. People are curious. But I think that is all," said Hilary Rosen, a past Clinton surrogate and Democratic strategist.
    "The media is driving the frenzy," another Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, added.
    Still, the sudden collision of Obama's and Clinton's worlds over the email controversy is steeped in irony. An Obama team that eight years ago would've used the flap for maximum political advantage is now providing cover for its former adversary.
    In part, that's due to the merging of key operatives from both orbits into Clinton's expected campaign team. A well-placed Democratic source said another key factor is Clinton's team is still taking shape. It would be a mistake, the source said, for Clinton to crank up her operation now, simply to respond to questions about her email practices.
    The relative calm expressed publicly by the White House and other key parts of the Obama administration in response to the email questions is a departure from one recent flare-up that defined the complicated Obama-Clinton alliance.
    It was only last August when Clinton took aim at the White House foreign policy mantra "don't do stupid stuff."
    "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," Clinton told the Atlantic magazine.
    "Just to clarify: 'Don't do stupid stuff' means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision," David Axelrod, one of the president's top former aides, tweeted in response.