By Jordain Carney - 06-18-17 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Republicans are clamoring to hear from Loretta Lynch after former FBI Director James Comey raised concerns about her involvement in the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are seizing on Comey's testimony earlier this month that he was concerned over the former attorney general telling the FBI to refer to the Clinton investigation as a "matter," which resembled the Clinton campaign line.
The move could allow Republicans to attempt to pivot away from the investigation into Russia's election meddling - which top GOP lawmakers have signaled belongs to the Intelligence Committee - and focus on Lynch, who has long been a target of Republicans.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican who is a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said it "would be very helpful" for Lynch to testify before the Judiciary panel, which oversees the Justice Department.
"Frankly, a lot of what Hillary Clinton was exposed to by Director Comey's misconduct and the way he handled that was apparently in response to his lack of confidence in the attorney general, and I think there is a lot we could learn from that," Cornyn said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also wants to hear from Lynch and is pushing for the Judiciary Committee to "get more involved."
"The accusations now that ... the current and former attorney general were political - that has nothing to do with Russia as much as it has to do with how the Department of Justice is being run," he said. "I want to find out all about that."
A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, stressed that no decisions have been made and staffers needed to first "gather evidence."
But the spokesman said it was "likely" after Comey's remarks before the intelligence panel that Lynch's testimony before the Judiciary Committee "will become necessary at some point."
President Trump has seized on the Obama administration official as the federal investigation into possible ties between his campaign and Russia heats up.
"A.G. Lynch made law enforcement decisions for political purposes...gave Hillary Clinton a free pass and protection. Totally illegal!" Trump tweeted this week.
Other Trump allies, including the Republican National Committee, have also questioned Lynch's behavior.
"Why is no one investigating Attorney General Lynch's Department of Justice for obstruction of justice in the Clinton email investigation. .. .There is compelling evidence to back up the claim that AG Lynch engaged in obstruction of justice," read one RNC talking point leaked to a Washington Post reporter this week.
The talking points were in response to a Post report that after Comey's firing last month, special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump obstructed justice.
A spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz said the Texas Republican would "absolutely" support Lynch testifying.
"Well, I kind of would like to get the whole thing behind us, but she should be interrogated [by a committee] because there's some real questions about whether her actions were proper," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said when asked if Lynch should testify as part of a larger obstruction of justice probe.
Comey apparently raised concerns about Lynch before he was fired. He told the Judiciary Committee in early May that he had been worried the Justice Department couldn't "credibly" decline to prosecute Clinton without "grievous damage to the American people's confidence in the justice system."
He also privately told Intelligence Committee members that he confronted Lynch on whether she had agreed to shut down the FBI's investigation. Comey worried her controversial meeting with former President Bill Clinton had created a conflict of interest, according to Circa, a website tracked closely by conservative media.
Though GOP lawmakers have long been wary of Lynch, placing her back in the spotlight could backfire if it also keeps the public's focus on Comey amid continued fallout over the FBI chief's firing in early May.
Grassley has signaled that potential obstruction of justice during the Obama administration should be included in the committee's work. The GOP chairman has argued that such a move is relevant because the Trump White House initially pointed to Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation to justify his firing.
"The Committee is examining the removal of Director Comey and allegations of improper influence on the FBI's handling of the Russia and Clinton email investigations. In his recent appearances before both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, Mr. Comey raised issues about whether these investigations were subjected to inappropriate political influence," said Taylor Foy, a spokesman for the Iowa Republican.
GOP senators appeared surprised by Grassley's decision to expand his committee's investigation, which would also include looking at potential political interference by Trump's Justice Department into FBI investigations.
The move comes after some Republican members of the committee were already skeptical of Grassley's threat to subpoena Comey to testify before the Judiciary Committee after the former FBI director met with the intelligence panel.
The two Senate panels are conducting separate investigations into Russia's election meddling, which includes Comey's firing. But Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Intelligence Committee chairman, said his panel would steer clear of investigating obstruction of justice, telling CNN that it has "never been part of our" probe.
Any push to pivot to Lynch and the Clinton email investigation would also likely spark pushback from Democrats, who are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress on the committee's push to get answers on Russia's election interference and Comey's firing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, signaled that the panel should look into whether Lynch tried to downplay the FBI's investigation into Clinton's email setup.
"I think we need to know more about that. And there's only way to know about it, and that's to have the Judiciary Committee take a look at that," she told CBS in a recent interview.
But she's also called for bringing in a swath of top Trump administration's officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Other top Democratic lawmakers have held off endorsing digging into Lynch.
Asked about Feinstein's comments to CBS, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sidestepped saying he wanted to hear from the former Obama official.
"Well, before I say anything further on this, I want to hear what Loretta Lynch's side of the story is. I haven't heard that yet," he told reporters.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added he wanted to talk to Feinstein but warned against rehashing Clinton scandals when "we have a front-and-center investigation that relates to the national security of the United States."
"Going back in the previous administration, I guess all of us have some questions about it, but we have a current investigation that is front and center in the American people's attention span, and that's what we ought to focus on," he said.