From the outset of their meeting on Capitol Hill Tuesday, it was plain that Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, who were holding a pre-scheduled oversight hearing on the Department of Justice, were not interested in talking about the same thing.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia delivered an opening statement heavy with complaints and criticisms of the recent decision by Lynch to accept a recommendation from the FBI not to pursue a criminal indictment of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server while running the State Department.
“The recent announcement by FBI Director Comey that he does not recommend criminal charges be brought against Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of classified information raises serious concerns,” Goodlatte said. “It is uniquely troubling in light of Attorney General Lynch’s secret meeting with former President Bill Clinton. No one is above the law and the American people need to know that federal law enforcement is taking this misconduct seriously.”
For her part, Lynch delivered an opening statement dwelling heavily on the recent violence in multiple cities across the country in which police have both killed and been killed by civilians. She also touched on the issue of terrorism, as well a civil rights.
But on the question of the Clinton investigation, she was determinedly mum.
“While I understand that this investigation has generated significant public interest, as Attorney General, 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,” she said at the beginning of the hearing.
Under questioning from Goodlatte and other Republicans, Lynch repeatedly refused to address the specifics of the case, referring all questions about it to FBI Director James Comey, who last week delivered an unusual statement to the media outlining the agency’s investigation, findings and decision not to seek an indictment.
Appended to almost every answer was her statement that she was proud of the work that DOJ prosecutors and agents, whom she described as career professionals as opposed to political appointees.
Her silence appeared to anger members of the committee, who seemed torn between insisting that Lynch should have recused herself altogether and claiming that she should have played a more active role in the case by essentially re-evaluating Comey’s findings after the fact.
Goodlatte opened the questioning by demanding to know why Lynch, who had worked in the Clinton administration and was appointed to her current position by Hillary Clinton’s former boss, didn’t recuse herself. He also pointed to a meeting between Lynch and Bill Clinton several days before the Comey announcement, which Republicans denounced as creating the impression that a backroom deal had been struck.
Following the outcry over the meeting, in an apparent effort to forestall criticism that the prosecutorial decision on Clinton would be politicized, Lynch announced that she would accept whatever recommendation the FBI delivered. In response to Goodlatte, she said that there was sufficient distance between her office and the team investigating Clinton to make recusal unnecessary.
Soon after, though, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin wanted to know why Lynch hadn’t been more aggressive about assessing Comey’s work.
“You are in charge of the Department of Justice and the buck stops with you,” he said. “Why did you defer to Director Comey when the decision was yours?”
Republicans also tried doggedly to get Lynch to at least admit that Clinton’s repeated claims that she neither sent nor received information over her private server that was classified at the time were false -- a point Comey had made abundantly clear. Even on that issue, Lynch gave no ground, repeatedly referring them back to the FBI director.
Lynch’s grilling took place in five minute bursts, interspersed with questions from Democrats, most of whom spent their allotted time on issues like gun violence and the relationship between law enforcement and the African American community, with occasional breaks to criticize the Republicans for their focus on Clinton.
“Let us be clear: The criminal investigation is closed. There was no intentional wrongdoing,” said Michigan Congressman John Conyers, the panel’s ranking Democrat. “If any of my colleagues are not yet convinced, it is because they don’t want to be convinced.”
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