In one fell swoop, former FBI Director James B. Comey chipped away Thursday at the credibility of two of his former bosses, saying Obama administration Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation deeply concerned him and raising the specter that there may be more to the story of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ problematic ties to Russia.
Although President Trump’s suspected interference in a government investigation was nominally the topic of the hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, one of Mr. Comey’s biggest bombshells involved Ms. Lynch and what he described as an attempt to change the FBI’s description of its probe of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. The change was meant to dovetail with how Mrs. Clinton’s supporters were characterizing the probe.
“At one point, [Ms. Lynch] directed me not to call it an ‘investigation’ but instead to call it a ‘matter,’ which confused me and concerned me,” Mr. Comey said of Ms. Lynch. “That was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude I have to step away from the department if we are to close this case credibly.”
Mr. Comey said the language suggested by Ms. Lynch was troublesome because it closely mirrored what the Clinton campaign was using.
Acknowledging that he didn’t know whether it was intentional, Mr. Comey said Ms. Lynch’s request “gave the impression the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our investigation with the way a political campaign was describing the same activity.”
Mr. Comey told lawmakers that Ms. Lynch’s intervention was a key factor in his decision to buck Justice Department tradition and publicly announce in July the details of Mrs. Clinton’s case and why he decided on his own not to bring a legal case against the former first lady.
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During nearly three hours of testimony, Mr. Comey said the Obama administration advised him on the tone in which he should discuss the investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s mishandling of classified information on her private email server.
During a congressional hearing in May — which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited as part of the reason he recommended the dismissal of Mr. Comey — the then-FBI director said he took the unusual step in part because he believed that a June 2016 airport tarmac meeting between Ms. Lynch and Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, had undermined the Justice Department’s credibility to independently investigate the case.
A person familiar with the discussion about semantics said it took place between Ms. Lynch and Mr. Comey in September 2015 and that the attorney general said she had used the term “matter” in response to media inquiries to ensure she did not confirm or deny an investigation. The person said the director expressed no issue at that time with using the term.
Despite his discomfort, Mr. Comey said, he agreed to Ms. Lynch’s language.
He told lawmakers he concluded, “This isn’t a hill worth dying on, and so I just said, ‘OK.’ The press is going to completely ignore it — and that’s what happened.”
Questions on Sessions
There were also uncomfortable moments for Mr. Sessions. The ousted FBI director, who testified as a private citizen, raised intrigue about the “variety of reasons” why the attorney general recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.
Mr. Comey testified Thursday that after consulting with other top FBI officials, he opted not to inform Mr. Sessions of the president’s comments about the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn because they expected him to be recused from all Russia-related issues “for a variety of reasons.”
“What was it about the attorney general’s own interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?” asked Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.
Mr. Comey said there were reasons he couldn’t discuss in a nonclassified setting that officials believed would make Mr. Sessions’ “continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
“And so we were convinced, and had already heard that the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer, and that turned out to be the case,” Mr. Comey said.
Mr. Sessions recused himself in March from the Justice Department investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the presidential election. The investigation has since been turned over to special counsel — former FBI Director Robert Mueller. The attorney general came under additional scrutiny just before the March 2 announcement when news broke that he had met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the course of the presidential campaign in which he stumped for Mr. Trump.
The Justice Department denied Mr. Comey’s account that Mr. Sessions remained silent when the FBI chief requested that the attorney general protect him from one-on-one meetings with Mr. Trump.
Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said the attorney general responded to Mr. Comey’s appeal “by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”
Mr. Prior also rejected Mr. Comey’s account that Mr. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in part because of revelations of his own dealing with Russian officials. Mr. Prior said the attorney general’s recusal was based solely on his prior participation and high-profile role in Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Comey was asked Thursday about the degree to which he thought Mr. Sessions had adhered to his recusal, including whether he was following that decision in relation to his role in Mr. Comey’s firing.
“That’s a question I can’t answer. I think that’s a reasonable question,” Mr. Comey said. “If I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain, I don’t know.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said Mr. Comey’s testimony left him with further questions about the attorney general’s recusal that he intends to raise next week when Mr. Sessions testifies before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science.
“I have sought for months to clarify Attorney General Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials,” Mr. Leahy said.
Although Mr. Trump was the only person with authority to fire the FBI director, both Mr. Sessions and Mr. Rosenstein issued memos supporting the firing.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, said she thought Mr. Comey was particularly harsh on Ms. Lynch in saying her Justice Department was compromised by the tarmac meeting while reserving judgment and not trying to expound on the reasons for Mr. Sessions’ actions.
“Comey was using a bit of a double standard in terms of how he judged both attorneys general,” Ms. Patel said. “That could be because of the fact that Sessions recommended Comey’s dismissal, so maybe he is being overly careful.”