Former FBI Director James Comey, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday morning, revealed a surprising tidbit about why he went public on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
During the 2016 election cycle, Bill Clinton met with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch on a tarmac in Phoenix, Arizona ― a move that was widely discussed because it coincided with the Justice Department investigating his wife, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
After hearing about that meeting, Comey said Thursday, he was prompted to bring the news of the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s emails into the public spotlight.
When asked Thursday whether his decision was influenced by the Lynch meeting, Comey said, “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,” Comey said.
Later in his testimony, Comey was questioned about the meeting again by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Cornyn asked why Comey didn’t call for a special counsel, particularly when Cornyn and other senators were calling for it.
Comey said he had considered it, but ultimately decided “it was unfair.”
“I knew there was no case there. I knew that calling for the appointment would be brutally unfair,” he said.
Comey was widely criticized for going public on the Clinton investigation so close to the election, with many Democrats saying that the timing of the news affected the outcome of the election.
The former FBI director also told the Senate committee that Lynch had requested that he call the Clinton investigation a “matter,” confirming previous reporting in The New York Times. Comey said that he was “confused” and “concerned” by Lynch’s request and that he thought it was “silly” to call the investigation a “matter.”
“It gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with a way a political campaign was talking about our activity, which was inaccurate,” Comey said.
A background statement sent to reporters by a Lynch associate on Thursday evening contended that she had thought that the Justice Department and the FBI should continue to abide by a longstanding policy of declining to confirm the existence of ongoing criminal investigations.
Lynch had told Comey that she used the term “matter” to refer to the investigation and suggested Comey do the same for the sake of consistency, according to the statement. When Lynch asked at the end of that meeting whether everyone in the room was comfortable using that term, the statement said Comey didn’t speak up.
That account of the meeting matched up, in the large part, with Comey’s description before the committee. Comey said he thought the choice of words wasn’t “a hill worth dying on,” so he said “OK.” But he said the request gave him a “queasy feeling” because the language “tracked” the way the Clinton campaign was talking about the investigation.
This post has been updated, including with the statement from a Loretta Lynch associate.