(Reuters)

Former FBI director James B. Comey said Thursday that he was unsettled last year by a request from the attorney general that could have been construed as enlisting him in an effort to play down the gravity of the federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Comey said that Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had asked him to refer to the Clinton email probe as a “matter,” rather than an “investigation.”

“I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but it gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way a political campaign was describing the same activity, which was inaccurate,” Comey said, referring to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “That gave me a queasy feeling,” he added.

Clinton, a former secretary of state who was then the Democratic front-runner for president, insisted she never mishandled classified information while conducting government business over a privately owned and operated email server. Her political campaign frequently referred to the FBI’s investigation as a “security review” and said the issue was overblown.

Comey said he thought that the wording Lynch requested “looked silly’’ but that he decided not to challenge her because it was “not a hill worth dying on.’’ And he used the word “matter” in congressional testimony.

A spokesman for Lynch did not respond to a request for comment on Comey’s remarks.

A former U.S. official close to Lynch challenged Comey’s description of events.

“Former Director Comey requested a meeting in September of 2015 in which he asked the AG and other Department officials for guidance on how to discuss the investigation at his upcoming testimony before Congress,” said the former official, who provided an emailed statement on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “The primary question before the group was not how to refer to the investigation, but whether to confirm its existence at all . . . The AG told Director Comey that she had used the term ‘matter’ in response to press inquiries, in order to ensure that she neither confirmed nor denied the investigation, in accordance with longstanding Justice Department and FBI policy. She suggested that she and the director should be consistent in their language, and at the end of the meeting, she asked if everyone was comfortable with using the term ‘matter.’ No one, including the Director, contested that view.”

On conservative media all day, the story of the hearing was Comey’s exchange with Lynch on how to describe the Clinton probe. “He’s admitting that he’s a coward,” said Rush Limbaugh. “He admitted that he let Loretta Lynch shape the language used in describing the Hillary investigation. He has admitted that she pressured him to do that and that he fell for her pressure.”

Comey testified Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his firing by President Trump, alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and, at the behest of several Republican senators, his decisions involving the Clinton email investigation.

(Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Comey repeated that he had found no case on which to prosecute Clinton or her aides and told senators he did not recommend an independent counsel to take the matter further because there was no evidence that any crime had been committed.

Under questioning from the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Comey said former president Bill Clinton’s meeting with Lynch on an airport tarmac last year was a large factor in his decision to announce the conclusion of the investigation without consulting Justice Department leadership.

He made clear Thursday that he spoke out in part to rebut suggestions that Lynch or the FBI had been swayed by the former president.

“In an ultimately conclusive way, that was the thing that capped it for me,” Comey said. “That I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department.”

Lynch said that the meeting was an unscheduled social encounter that occurred at Bill Clinton’s request and that they did not discuss the investigation. Trump and other Republicans strongly criticized Lynch for meeting with Clinton while the investigation was open, and both she and Clinton later said they regretted it.

Comey also cited the plane episode in defending his decision not to recommend a special counsel in the Hillary Clinton case.

“We had investigated very, very thoroughly,” Comey said. “I know this is a subject of passionate disagreement. But I knew there was no case there. Calling for the appointment of special counsel would be brutally unfair and would send the message there’s something here.”

Clinton and her former aides blame her loss partly on Comey’s decision to briefly reopen the case less than two weeks before the election, after agents in another case had discovered additional Clinton work emails.

Comey announced on Nov. 6, two days before the vote, that the additional material did not change his initial view that there was no criminal case, and he again closed the probe.

Speaking to donors several days after her loss, Clinton said the first Comey announcement sapped enthusiasm from Democrats and blunted what had seemed like strong momentum toward a victory. The second announcement, she said, energized Republicans angry that she would not be prosecuted.

David Weigel contributed to this report.