Loretta Lynch: I never told Comey to call the Clinton investigation a 'matter'

Monday, a transcript of testimony former Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave before a joint session of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees in December was released. During her testimony, Lynch was asked about the claim that she once asked then-FBI Director James Comey to refer to an investigation of Hillary Clinton as “a matter” as a way of downplaying its significance. Lynch denied ever having said that which means either she or James Comey are lying about what happened. From Fox News:

“I did not,” Lynch responded when asked if she had “ever” told Comey to call the investigation a “matter.”

“I have never instructed a witness as to what to say specifically. Never have, never will,” Lynch continued. “In the meeting that I had with the Director, we were discussing how best to keep Congress informed of progress and discuss requesting resources for the Department overall. We were going to testify separately. And the concern that both of us had in the meeting that I was having with him in September of 2015 was how to have that discussion without stepping across the Department policy of confirming or denying an investigation, separate policy from testifying.

“Obviously, we wanted to testify fully, fulsomely, and provide the information that was needed, but we were not at that point, in September of 2015, ready to confirm that there was an investigation into the email matter — or deny it,” Lynch added. “We were sticking with policy, and that was my position on that. I didn’t direct anyone to use specific phraseology. When the Director asked me how to best to handle that, I said: What I have been saying is we have received a referral and we are working on the matter, working on the issue, or we have all the resources we need to handle the matter, handle the issue. So that was the suggestion that I made to him.”

Lynch claimed she was “quite surprised” by Comey’s characterization of her statements. She added that she was just trying to conform to department policy about not confirming or denying the existence of an investigation:

“I said that I had been referring to — I had been using the phraseology,” Lynch responded. “We’ve received a referral. Because we received a public referral, which we were confirming. And that is Department policy, that when we receive a public referral from any agency, that we confirm the referral but we neither confirm nor deny the investigation. That’s actually a standard DOJ policy.”

That’s Lynch’s story. Compare that to what Comey said about the encounter in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. From the NY Times:

“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,” Mr. Comey said in response to questions during testimony, which focused mainly on President Trump’s decision to fire him last month. “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.’”

The attorney general’s request, reported in The New York Times in April, came just before a congressional hearing in September 2015 where Mr. Comey was sure to be asked about the investigation.

“The Clinton campaign, at the time, was using all kind of euphemisms — security review, matters, things like that, for what was going on,” Mr. Comey said on Thursday. “We were getting to a place where the attorney general and I were both going to have to testify and talk publicly about. And I wanted to know, was she going to authorize us to confirm we had an investigation?

“And she said, ‘Yes, but don’t call it that, call it a matter,’” Mr. Comey continued. “And I said, ‘Why would I do that?’ And she said, ‘Just call it a matter.’”

The key part in Comey’s version is when Lynch answered that question in the affirmative: “Yes, but don’t call it that, call it a matter.” That makes it sound as if she was okay with confirming the investigation but trying to downplay it. In Lynch’s version, she was trying to neither confirm nor deny the investigation.

It’s worth noting that Lynch point about “standard DOJ policy” is a sore spot for many people when it comes to Comey. Many on the left (including Hillary herself) believe his decision in late 2016 to alert Congress they were reviewing new material in the email investigation may have cost her the election. They also point out that the investigation of Trump campaign officials was not revealed by Comey. So there’s a sense in which Lynch’s description is both accurate regarding DOJ policy and also throwing daggers at James Comey.

Who to believe in this case? On one hand, Comey has revealed himself to be a political creature. On the other hand, Lynch always struck me as political and someone who would have been on board with the idea that Hillary would protect Obama’s legacy. And in this case, if Comey were giving in to his politics, including his evident distaste for Trump, he would have gone along with Lynch and never said anything. Instead, he suggested she was trying to help Hillary.

Ultimately, I believe Comey’s version for one reason: He announced the outcome of the Clinton investigation without warning Lynch what he planned to say in advance. There had to be some motive for that and the one that makes the most sense is the one he’s offered, i.e. he wasn’t sure Lynch was independent when it came to Clinton because of this interaction (among other things). I guess it’s possible Comey was wrong about Lynch but if so it seems he was sincerely wrong. He really believed something funny was going on and he acted on that belief.