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Clinton dismisses 'conspiracy' talk

In the wide-ranging 20-minute interview Friday on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper," Clinton addressed everything from her performance in the first Democratic debate and her top rival for the Democratic nomination Sen. Bernie Sanders to Republican front-runner Donald Trump's "oversize personality" and whether Vice President Joe Biden should jump into the race.

But less than a week before she testifies for the first time before the panel and on the same day as her top aide Huma Abedin testified privately before the committee, Clinton previewed her testimony and girded herself for the tough questioning she is expected to endure by pointing to the committee's political motivations. And it's already clear she is arming herself with the since-repudiated comments of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who a few weeks ago linked the committee's fate to Clinton's once-slipping poll numbers.

"I think it's pretty clear that whatever they might've thought they were doing, they ended up becoming a partisan arm of the Republican National Committee with an overwhelming focus on trying to -- as they admitted -- drive down my poll numbers," Clinton told Tapper. "I've already testified about Benghazi. I testified to the best of my ability before the Senate and the House. I don't know that I have very much to add."

Clinton also swatted away questions about her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state and whether she mishandled any classified materials through her email, once again insisting that "nothing that I was sent or that I sent was marked classified."

It's a fine-tuned phrase that she has often repeated in recent weeks as she and her campaign have adjusted their messaging on the controversy swirling around her email use -- messaging that she struggled to keep consistent in the first waves of criticism that plagued her campaign's debut.

While it appears none of the emails Clinton sent or received were marked classified, the intelligence community's inspector general has said that some of the emails contained classified information when they were generated -- not just information that was retroactively classified.

Clinton called that "a very strong difference of opinion" and noted that the State Department disagrees with that assertion and explained that various agencies often disagree about what information should or should not be classified.

And addressing her email exchanges with longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal -- exchanges that have drawn scrutiny and are sure to come up in next week's hearing -- Clinton was quick to insist that nothing he sent her and that she at times forwarded to her aides could be construed as classified "because it came from an outside non-government person."

Clinton, whose use of personal email as secretary of state was permitted under the State Department's rules at the time, said no one at the State Department signed off on her decision to set up a private email server.

The Republican National Committee slammed that answer in a statement Friday and insisted that "what she did was not allowed."

"Hillary Clinton's stunning admission that she unilaterally set up her secret email server that exposed Top Secret material shows she alone is responsible for putting national security at risk," RNC spokesman Michael Short said. "While Hillary Clinton may think she can mislead and laugh off tough questions about her judgment, her growing email scandal personifies why an overwhelming majority of Americans don't trust her."

On Donald Trump

Just as Trump has shown no sign of relenting in his attacks on the Democratic front-runner, Clinton said Friday she will "continue to criticize him for going beyond the bounds of what I think is appropriate for anybody running for president."

"He has brought his oversize personality and his reality television experience to the highest level of American politics and seems to be getting a very positive response among a large part of the Republican electorate," Clinton said. She praised his daughter Ivanka and noted her friendship with Chelsea Clinton.

While she said Republicans will have to decide if Trump is the right candidate to carry their banner into the general election, she slammed Trump for the "uncalled-for ... insults and the attacks that he's made on immigrants, on women."

On Joe Biden

While Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta said this week after the debate that "the time has come for a decision" from the vice president on whether or not he will jump into the race, Clinton reiterated that she believes Biden is entitled to his own timeline.

She said her top strategist was saying that "there does come a point by which a decision needs to be made," but insisted she was not rushing the vice president.

"That's up to Vice President Biden," she said. "Certainly I'm not in any way suggesting or recommending that the vice president accept any timetable other than the one that is clicking inside of him. He has to make this decision."

On her race with Bernie Sanders

Addressing questions about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton repeatedly stressed that the differences between her and her Democratic rivals are "nothing like the differences that we all have with the Republicans."

"You could see on that stage in Las Vegas how we are maybe approaching these problems with different solutions, but we're both seeing the pressures that American families are under and the challenges that they're facing," she said. "We're not peddling the same old failed policies of trickle-down economics and let the corporations do what they want and cut taxes on the wealthy."

While Clinton did not hesitate to jab at Sanders, the current runner-up in Democratic polls, during the debate, Clinton slinked from attacking him in the interview Friday, preferring to train her sights on Republicans.

"I think he is raising issues that the electorate -- not just Democrats, everybody needs to be thinking about. He has put forward his plans with passionate intensity and I have put forth mine and just think of the difference between us and the Republicans who have put forward nothing but the same old out of touch, out of date policies," she said of Sanders, a senator from Vermont who is running to Clinton's left.

And while Clinton has taken heat for shifting positions on some issues -- most recently tacking to the left by opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal she helped advance as secretary of state -- she reiterated that she has not changed her positions for political reasons.

"I have been the same person. I have the same values, I have the same principles," she said. "There isn't anyone I know in politics who haven't changed a position from time to time."

She said that while she's fought for the same values, she does "look at the evidence and try to figure out what is the best way forward to achieve the goals that I hold."

On guns

Clinton most forcefully criticized Sanders during the debate earlier this week over his positions on gun control -- the one major departure from what has been an overwhelmingly progressive record.

On several occasions, Sanders voted against the Brady bill, which was aimed at imposing tighter gun laws, and has since tacked to the left on guns -- explaining that his views were tied to the fact that he represents a rural state where support for guns is higher.

But Clinton herself spoke differently about guns and gun laws in her 2008 primary against then-Sen. Barack Obama -- one in which she ran to his right as a more centrist alternative.

She said in 2008 that guns are a part of American culture and sent out a mailer criticizing Obama for pushing tougher gun laws.

She said on Friday her comments reflected her years in Arkansas when her husband was governor and has "a lot of experience with and respect for people who own guns, collect guns, use them for hunting, use them for target shooting" and that she respects the Second Amendment.

"But I believe we have gone way too far in being intimidated by the (National Rifle Association), and I have said repeatedly that the majority of Americans and the majority of gun owners support universal background checks," she said. "And for the NRA to take these absolute positions on behalf of the most extreme of their members, and carrying water for the manufacturers and dealers, is just wrong."

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