If former President Bill Clinton had never met then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch on a tarmac in Phoenix last year, James Comey might never have blistered Hillary Clinton in a press conference announcing the closure of the FBI’s investigation into her emails, Comey seemed to suggest in his Senate testimony on Thursday.
“I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department,” Comey said in the hearing. He was responding to a Republican senator’s question of whether the Lynch-Clinton meeting — in the midst of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s private email server — had influenced Comey’s decision to call the press conference in which he called her and her associates were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
While Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee was chiefly to testify about his interactions with President Donald Trump and the Russia-related investigations, the committee’s Republican chair steered it early and briefly into the email issue.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chair, asked Comey what played into his decision to publicly announce the closure of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s email server in the height of the presidential election season last July:
BURR: Let me go back if I can very briefly to the decision to publicly go out with your results on the email scandal. Was your decision influenced by the attorney general's tarmac meeting with the former president, Bill Clinton?
COMEY: Yes. In an ultimately conclusive way that was the thing that capped it for me, that I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department.
BURR: Were there other things that contributed to that, that you can describe in an open session?
COMEY: There were other things that contributed to that. One significant item I can't. I know the committee's been briefed on, there's been some public accounts of it which are nonsense, but I understand the committee has been briefed on the classified facts. Probably the only other consideration that I guess I can talk about in an open setting is that at one point 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, but 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.
Comey has long been derided by both Democrats and Republicans for his handling of the Clinton email scandal.
But according to his testimony, his decision last July had to do with the obstruction of justice allegations made against the Clintons — namely that Lynch, who had purview over the FBI during their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, had met with Bill Clinton at a time when it was still possible that the investigation could result in Clinton being indicted.
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained, “even though Lynch and others present for the conversation say the two didn’t discuss any Department of Justice cases, and certainly not the Clinton emails case,” Republicans have long claimed the meeting was evidence of corruption.