Loretta Lynch could be questioned for pressuring Comey on Clinton email 'matter'

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, accompanied by FBI Director James Comey, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, March 24, 2016. Seven hackers tied to the Iranian government were charged Thursday in a series of punishing cyberattacks on a small dam outside New York City and on dozens of banks _ intrusions that reached into American infrastructure and disrupted the financial system, U.S. law enforcement officials said. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Over the weekend, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said there should be an investigation into any improper political pressure put on the FBI by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

During his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, Comey publicly acknowledged that Loretta Lynch directed him to adopt the same language as Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in referring to the FBI's email investigation as a "matter."

The request from Lynch "made me queasy," Comey told the Senate panel. "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."

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted that the matter deserves greater attention. "I think we need to know more about that," she said on CNN's State of the Union. "And there's only way to know about it, and that's to have the Judiciary Committee take a look at that."

The investigation would be entirely separate from the committee's ongoing probes into Russian election interference. It would also be separate from possible obstruction of justice by members of the Trump administration, a separate investigation Feinstein has been pushing.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that Loretta Lynch should "absolutely" testify before the committee.

"I want to hear from Loretta Lynch," Graham said on CBS's Face the Nation. "You had Comey suggest that the current U.S. attorney general and the former attorney general were playing politics with the investigation, Lynch and Sessions. That needs to be in our committee."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the committee, has yet to announce whether Lynch will be called in for public testimony.

The Judiciary Committee is currently investigating the circumstances of former FBI Director Comey’s firing, which "necessarily includes" the Department of Justice and FBI’s handling of both the Clinton investigation and the probe of Russian election interference, Grassley's press secretary wrote on Monday.

"The American people need know whether improper political interference affected either case," he said.

The call for Lynch to answer for possible political pressure on the FBI director was welcomed by the Trump administration. White House counsel Kellyane Conway said Feinstein's call for an investigation was "refreshing."

"[Comey] admitted under oath that he acceded to the wishes of Attorney General Loretta Lynch to lessen the description of what was surely a full-blown investigation to a 'matter,'" Conway told Fox News on Monday, saying the issue was much bigger than semantics. "It made him feel 'queasy' but he had no problem doing that."

The FBI opened its criminal probe on July 10, 2015 after a criminal referral was made to the Bureau on the matter of Clinton's handling of classified information on her private email server. When this fact was made public, Clinton and her campaign regularly referred to a "security review" of her server, something the FBI would later say was inaccurate.

In September, with the presidential primaries were well underway, Comey met with leaders in the Department of Justice to prepare for upcoming congressional hearings and press conferences that would deal with the matter of Clinton's emails.

According to The New York Times, it was during that period that Lynch and others at the Department of Justice asked Comey to publicly refer to the investigation as "a matter." which he did initially.

Even when the FBI confirmed the investigation officially in February 2016, it still referred only to "matters" and "law enforcement efforts" around Clinton's use of a private email server.

Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general under George W. Bush, said the way the language of the investigation was adjusted "made the Department of Justice essentially an arm of the Clinton campaign."

Lynch's instructions to Comey represented "a betrayal of the department and of its independence," Mukasey said in an interview with Newsmax.

For others, the circumstances around Lynch's request are less clear. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to dismiss the calls for Lynch to appear before the Senate, saying on Sunday that she should "state something privately" about Comey's allegations to see "whether it rises to the level that she should come testify."

Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein explained that the Senate should conduct a preliminary inquiry with both Comey and Lynch before calling the former attorney general to testify publicly.

"If all that Loretta Lynch asked was to change the terminology ... I think that the inquiry should not go much further," Rothstein said. "If she had said, 'I hope you would let it go,' that would be another level upward and would be pressure."

If the incident occurred as Comey described in his testimony, Rothstein believes it was "perfectly within the authority of Loretta Lynch as attorney general" to request the Clinton investigation be discussed "in terms that are not fraught with criminality in the mind of the public."

Any early attempts by the Department of Justice to deny the existence of an FBI investigation were blown wide open by Spring of 2016. In a May press briefing, reporters grilled Comey about the Clinton's description of the FBI probe as a "security inquiry." He said he was not familiar with the term, stating, "We're conducting an investigation. That's what we do."

Comey's decision to publicly announce the end of the Clinton investigation on July 5 was also closely connected to Lynch. In his testimony last week, Comey described the private June 30 tarmac meeting between Lynch and former President Bill Clinton as being "ultimately conclusive" in pushing him to close the investigation and recommend no criminal prosecution.

According to Saikrishna Prakash, constitutional law professor at the University of Virginia Law School, the circumstances of Lynch's meeting with former President Clinton and Comey's account of being pressured to talk about the Clinton investigation in different terms raise a number of unanswered questions about Lynch's impartiality.

"What Comey reported as occurring between him and Attorney General Lynch just raises the question about what other sorts of directives was she giving him in the course of this investigation," Prakash noted. "It raises questions about her impartiality. It raises questions about any other directive she may have given to him or anyone else at the Department of Justice of the FBI in particular about how to conduct an investigation."

The directive was certainly unusual and "suggests that [Lynch] has been influenced by the Clinton campaign," but Prakash was not prepared to say whether the attorney general engaged in interference or obstruction. All those are matters that should be looked into further.

"I don't know how you couldn't be intrigued by this directive to call it something rather than what it was," he added. "So I think it's worth exploring."

The seemingly non-stop inquiries from Capitol Hill have dominated the early part of Trump's presidency and made it difficult for the White House to move anything substantial through Congress. Last week, Trump's legislative director Marc Short admitted that the constant focus on investigations "detracts from our legislative agenda."

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will address the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing. Sessions is expected to be grilled on the circumstances surrounding Comey's firing as well as the investigation into Russian election meddling. Sessions recused himself from any involvement in the Russian matter back in March.

The Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein will also appear before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, where he is supposed to address the Justice Department's 2018 budget request, but will likely face a barrage of questions about fired FBI director James Comey and Russia.

According to Paul Rothstein, regardless of how difficult and disruptive the investigations are, they are worth the cost.

"It is enormously expensive, enormously wasteful in a way, enormously paralyzing to the government, but so ... critically important to do it," Rothstein explained.

"Investigating government wrongdoing is one of the primary functions of our government," he insisted. "Because once the door is open a crack to corruption, it spreads and there begins to be no public confidence ... in the government. And then things fall apart."