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Lynch disputes having directed Comey to characterize Clinton email probe as ‘a matter’

Loretta E. Lynch testifies on Capitol Hill in 2015 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Loretta E. Lynch testifies on Capitol Hill in 2015 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch disputed in closed-door congressional testimony that she directed former FBI director James B. Comey to downplay the significance of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server by calling it “a matter.”

Lynch said she was “quite surprised” by Comey’s characterization, made during a 2017 appearance before a Senate committee as he sought to explain why he decided to take it upon himself to announce that no charges would be brought against Clinton, the former secretary of state who was then a Democratic candidate for president.

A transcript of Lynch’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee was made public Monday night by ranking Republican Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.). Lynch, who served in the Obama administration, appeared in a closed session of the committee in December, before Democrats took control of the House.

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During the closed session, Lynch was asked about Comey’s June 2017 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he suggested Lynch had been politically compromised when she asked him in 2015 not to call the FBI’s probe “an investigation.”

“The attorney general had directed me not to call it ‘an investigation,’ but instead to call it ‘a matter,’ which confused me and concerned me,” Comey told the Senate panel. “That was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude, ‘I have to step away from the department if we’re to close this case credibly.’”

During her House testimony, Lynch said she and Comey had a conversation about how to describe the status of the case but that she never issued a directive.

“I was quite surprised that he characterized it in that way,” Lynch said. “I didn’t direct anyone to use specific phraseology.”

Lynch said that at the time of their conversation, the probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state was still in its early stages and she was not publicly calling it an “investigation.”

“When the director asked me how to best to handle that, I said, ‘What I have been saying is we have received a referral, and we are working on the matter, working on the issue, or we have all the resources we need to handle the matter, handle the issue,’” Lynch said. “So that was the suggestion that I made to him.”

Lynch added that her suggestion was consistent with long-standing Justice Department policy.

Comey was fired by President Trump in 2017 amid the early stages of the investigation into Russian election interference. The two have since engaged in a war of words, with both questioning the other’s credibility.