Good question — and one that may give an answer to why James Comey wants to hold a post-inaugural presser. As Attorney General, Loretta Lynch had the authority to tell the FBI director not to send a letter to Congress in late October informing them of the new activity in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server and its transmission of classified information on hundreds of occasions. The Washington Post’s Sari Horowitz reports that senior Department of Justice officials wanted to stop Comey from sending the letter, at least in the form it eventually took.
Ever since Hillary lost the election, Democrats from Bill Clinton on down have blamed Comey for plowing ahead and updating the relevant Congressional committees anyway. But that leaves Lynch out of the chain of responsibility, and people are beginning to notice:
Comey has taken the harsher beating in public for his decision, but some political observers and former Justice officials say that Lynch deserves at least as much scrutiny.
Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said that the controversy shines a light on Lynch’s compromised position and failed leadership as attorney general.
“If she thought [the letter] violated department policy or was otherwise a bad idea, she could have ordered him not to send the letter,” said Goldsmith, who noted that soon after the letter was released, Justice officials proceeded to criticize Comey when Lynch had the power all along to stop him. “It was an astonishing failure of leadership and eschewal of responsibility, especially if Lynch really thought what Comey did was wrong.”
Why didn’t Lynch act on the advice given to her by her DoJ officials? Because Bill Clinton goaded her into a compromising secret meeting on the tarmac at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport in late June. Horowitz’ account of the meeting from Lynch’s point of view seems unbelievably naïve:
Lynch felt she could not say no to the former president, who 17 years ago promoted her to U.S. attorney. Once inside the plane, Lynch said that she, Clinton and her husband discussed their travels, Clinton’s grandchildren, golfing and Brexit.
But as the visit dragged on, Lynch became anxious. The Justice Department was still conducting an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices during her tenure as secretary of state. Lynch had just wanted to say a quick hello to Bill Clinton, and now they had been talking for close to half an hour.
Come on, man. Loretta Lynch wasn’t just some babe in the woods when it comes to politics and prosecutions. She served as a US Attorney for two years in Clinton’s term after nine years as an AUSA in the same office, including four years of running the Long Island office. She would have known better than to take a private, off-the-record meeting with the spouse of the subject of a criminal probe that she might have to later prosecute, even without the obvious political implications. Not only could she have said no to Bill, Lynch had a duty to tell him no under the circumstances.
When Lynch took the meeting anyway, and then refused to entirely recuse herself from the decision about whether to prosecute, Comey saw no choice but to go public with the FBI’s findings and his recommendation afterward. One source from within the FBI made that point to Horowitz:
A former senior FBI official who worked closely with Comey for several years said that Comey’s sense of obligation to Congress was the key factor driving his decision. He had testified under oath months earlier that the Clinton investigation was closed. But another factor that day was that Lynch’s credibility had been compromised months earlier in Phoenix.
“Anybody who’s ever worked with Jim Comey knows that he has an independent spirit,” the official said. “But he still very much believes in the chain of command. If he has a boss who’s asking him to do something that’s in the scope of the law and reason, he’s going to follow it. He would have followed protocol. Had the issue with Loretta Lynch on the tarmac not happened, things would be different. People forget that.”
Once that happened, Comey became more of a free agent — and apparently Lynch was rather reluctant to use her tarnished authority to change that. This might shed light on why Comey’s mulling over having a press conference — and its timing. Democrats have teed off on him plenty over the past six weeks (although the White House has been mainly silent), and Comey could well be seething over the lack of attention Lynch’s compromising activities have received. That could also explain why Comey’s waiting until after the inauguration to lay out his case: he wants Lynch out of his chain of command first before attacking her. Comey might also want to tie the whole thing back to Bill Clinton after his criticism this week, and argue that Bill deliberately compromised Lynch as a way to stymie a proper investigation.
A press conference airing all this out while still serving as FBI director is still probably a bad idea, politically speaking, but it’s certainly understandable.
Update: Edited the first sentence; I meant to say “may give.”