U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch repeatedly declined to answer questions on Tuesday about her department’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while she was secretary of state, making for a bizarre congressional hearing in which she referred inquiries about the matter to a man lower than her on the organizational chart.
At the outset of her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Lynch said it would be “inappropriate for me to comment further on the underlying facts of the investigation or the legal basis for the team’s recommendation.” That drew the ire of congressional Republicans and put her in stark contrast with FBI Director James B. Comey, who has offered a detailed, public explanation of how he concluded Clinton should not face criminal charges.
“He’s chosen to provide detailed statements, and I would refer you to those statements,” Lynch said. “I as Attorney General am not able to provide any further comment on the facts or the substance of the investigation.”
For about 4½ hours, Republicans pressed for details, and Lynch calmly directed their inquiries to Comey, who sits lower than her on the Department of Justice’s organizational chart. As the day wore on, the attorney general’s questioners grew increasingly frustrated.
“The optics of this are terrible and you, today, have made it worse,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.).
For their part, Democrats bemoaned that the conversation was focused on the former secretary of state’s email practices rather than on issues such as gun control and policing practices. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) called the proceedings a “fishing expedition” and a “sham.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said, “To some extent, we’re beating a dead horse here, for political reasons.”
Lynch had announced last week that she was accepting the recommendation of the FBI director and federal prosecutors and closing the probe involving the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Still, the controversy is far from resolved.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Americans — 56 percent — disapproved of the FBI director’s recommendation not to charge Clinton, and 57 percent said the issue made them at least somewhat worried about how she might handle her responsibilities as president.
Two Republican congressmen requested Monday that the U.S. attorney for the District investigate whether Hillary Clinton committed perjury when she testified before a congressional committee about her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Separately, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) asked that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. deny Clinton access to classified information that she is expected to receive in briefings as the Democratic presidential nominee, but Clapper responded Monday that he did not “intend to withhold briefings from any officially nominated candidate.”
A spokesman for Ryan said Tuesday: “We obviously disagree with the decision and want to know what precautions will be taken and what assurances the director can give that Secretary Clinton won’t mishandle classified information. She has proven herself untrustworthy.”
The House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday marked the first time Lynch was questioned publicly about the decision not to charge Clinton or her aides, though it offered Republicans little new fodder for attack. At one point, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Lynch was so skilled at dodging questions that he was “going to simply capitulate” and not ask any more.
When Comey publicly defended his recommendation that Clinton not face charges for mishandling classified information, he delivered a stinging public critique of her email practices and revealed facts that call into question her explanations of the matter. He said classified material traversed Clinton’s private server, and at least three documents bore subtle classification markings. He conceded that there was “evidence of mishandling” classified information in Clinton’s setup and that an FBI employee who did the same thing “would face consequences for this.” He also said that he thought Clinton was “extremely careless“ and “negligent.”
Lynch declined to endorse those points, saying, “I did not come to a characterization or a description, as he did.”
When asked by Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) whether she was legally prohibited from answering questions about the case in a way that Comey wasn’t, Lynch responded that she and the FBI director “had very different roles in this investigation, and therefore very different amounts of information about this investigation.”
“Director Comey was speaking from his position as somebody who was more directly involved in the investigation,” she said.
A Clinton campaign spokesman has said of Comey’s testimony, “While Republicans may try to keep this issue alive, this hearing proved those efforts will only backfire.”
Lynch did assert Tuesday that she ultimately “made the decision” not to charge Clinton, though she said she did so by accepting the recommendation of the team of prosecutors and FBI agents who worked on the case. She said the investigation was supervised by the Justice Department’s national security division and that Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates was “part of the chain of review.”
Lynch also addressed skeptical lines of questioning about her meeting with former president Bill Clinton aboard her plane in Arizona before the decision had been made to close the case. She had already publicly addressed the meeting, saying that it occurred spontaneously because the two happened to be at the same airport in Phoenix at the same time. She repeated that assertion Tuesday and said no ongoing cases, including the Clinton email probe, were discussed.
Soon after the airplane meeting was reported, Lynch announced that she would accept the recommendation of the career prosecutors and FBI agents looking into Clinton’s email use in a bid to quell concerns that politics were influencing the investigation. When Comey announced he was recommending no charges be filed, he said he was doing so without having told the attorney general beforehand.
Lynch said Tuesday that she had not discussed with Hillary Clinton the possibility of staying on as attorney general were the former secretary of state to be elected president, and when pressed to say whether she would rule out keeping the job, she said her focus was the current administration.
Unrelated to the Clinton email probe, Lynch said the department was still investigating the death of Eric Garner in police custody, and that review would include a look at the New York City Police Department’s policies and procedures. She also fielded a request from U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) to open a broad civil rights investigation of the Baton Rouge, La., police department, though she did not say whether she would do so.