The Obama administration circled the wagons around Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch refusing to detail why she didn’t pursue criminal charges against the former secretary and the State Department going to bat for her, saying she shouldn’t have to testify under oath about her secret email account.
Facing irate Republicans on Capitol Hill, Ms. Lynch repeatedly passed the buck to others in the Justice Department, saying that while she announced she wouldn’t pursue charges against Mrs. Clinton, the decision was made by the FBI and career prosecutors and she had no public thoughts on the matter.
She said refusing to divulge details of her decision protected her employees from political pressure, but Republicans said she was the one engaging in politics by protecting the Clintons as repayment for having been appointed as a prosecutor by President Bill Clinton.
Ms. Lynch said she decided, even before her ill-timed meeting with Mr. Clinton at a Phoenix airport, that she would accept whatever recommendation the FBI would make about prosecuting Mrs. Clinton.
She said she finalized her decision after meeting last week with FBI Director James B. Comey, his agents and career Justice Department prosecutors — though she couldn’t recall how long that meeting lasted.
“The matter was handled like any other matter,” she told the House Judiciary Committee.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, asked Ms. Lynch whether she agreed with Mr. Comey’s conclusions that Mrs. Clinton may have broken laws. Also during his prodding, Mr. Goodlatte asked Ms. Lynch to detail her understanding of the key parts of law that govern classified information.
Ms. Lynch replied that the law speaks for itself and refused to say any more.
For many Republicans on Capitol Hill, the law on its face indicts Mrs. Clinton’s behavior. It requires only “gross negligence” in handling classified information to score a conviction — a standard Mr. Comey said Mrs. Clinton likely met.
But Mr. Comey said even though it is not written explicitly into the law, the statute requires Mrs. Clinton to have knowingly mishandled the information. Her lack of sophistication undercut his ability to make that case, he said.
Republicans were stunned that Ms. Lynch refused to answer questions.
“You are in charge of the Department of Justice. The buck stops with you,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.
He said Ms. Lynch created a credibility gap by prosecuting members of the military for sending emails with classified information but failing to go after Mrs. Clinton.
“You have a problem, Madame Attorney General,” he said.
She replied: “Every case stands on its own separate facts.”
Ms. Lynch wouldn’t even say that Mrs. Clinton appeared to have broken open-records laws — something Mr. Comey asserted in his own testimony to Congress last week, citing a State Department inspector general’s conclusions.
Democrats accused Republicans of being obsessed with Mrs. Clinton’s email mistakes. They said Ms. Lynch had more important issues to attend to, such as the high-profile shootings of two black men by police last week and the retaliatory assassinations of five Dallas police officers by a black gunman.
Mrs. Clinton used a secret email server kept in the basement of her home in New York to conduct official government business, shielding her communications from disclosure for nearly six years.
In December 2014, nearly two years after she left office and after prodding by the congressional Benghazi investigative committee, she returned 32,000 messages that she said were government business. She deleted 30,000 others that she said were private.
The FBI managed to recover many deleted messages and said thousands of them did contain government-related business.
On Tuesday, the FBI said it would turn over those messages to the State Department, which will have to process them according to open-records laws.
Mrs. Clinton has admitted using the secret server was a mistake but has blamed her aides for any classified information she sent or received. She said she trusted them to know what should be kept secret.
Her attorney, David E. Kendall, blamed State Department aides for not telling Mrs. Clinton that she was violating policy requiring records to be stored.
“Although Secretary Clinton corresponded widely with senior officials at the Department, there is no evidence that anyone expressed concern to Secretary Clinton or her aides about the record-keeping implications of her use of personal email,” Mr. Kendall said in a court filing.
He was responding to a request by Judicial Watch, a conservative law firm, which asked a federal judge to order Mrs. Clinton to submit to a sworn deposition about her server. Judicial Watch is trying to get a look at the 30,000 emails Mrs. Clinton refused to turn over.
Mr. Kendall said that is now a matter for the FBI, which has the server.
“No matter how much discovery Judicial Watch takes, the ultimate relief it seeks — production and search of Secretary Clinton’s clintonemail.com account by either the State Department or Secretary Clinton — is impossible to obtain in this case, as Secretary Clinton does not have possession or control of the equipment that housed that account,” the attorney wrote.
Mr. Kendall said Mrs. Clinton’s public testimony covers all of the questions that should be answered, and he asked Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to excuse her from having to face more questions.
The State Department also rallied to Mrs. Clinton’s defense, saying there is no reason for her to testify.
“With respect to former Secretary Clinton, the record evidence does not demonstrate any intent to thwart [the Freedom of Information Act],” the department’s attorneys said.
Mr. Kendall went further, saying the State Department can’t reclaim Mrs. Clinton’s emails because she used a private server, not a government account.
“That email account, which was hosted on private server equipment, was possessed privately under a claim of right, and has never been the property of or in the possession or control of the State Department,” he said.