Lynch mum on Clinton email probe at tense House hearing

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Attorney General Loretta Lynch repeatedly dodged and deflected specific questions Tuesday on the FBI’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s email use, referring Republicans to the FBI director instead of answering them herself – and leading to heated exchanges with top Republicans over the course of several hours of testimony.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said Lynch’s “lack of clarity is bad for the republic.”

During questioning before the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also asked about the legality of sharing classified information outside the proper channels and other issues. Lynch said it would be unfair to give a blanket answer.

“I think you’re sending a terrible message to the world,” Chaffetz said. “The lack of clarity that you give to this body … is pretty stunning.”

The exchanges were in keeping with the tense tone of a hearing where Republican lawmakers struggled – over and over – to draw detailed answers from the nation’s top law enforcement official regarding the decision not to pursue charges against Clinton over her email use.

She repeatedly deferred to FBI Director James Comey’s comments on the case, declining to elaborate herself.

“I would refer you to those statements,” Lynch said. “I, as attorney general, am not able to provide any further comment on the facts or the substance of the investigation.”

Even as Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., noted it was her conclusion in the end on whether to act, Lynch would not comment in detail, specifically when pressed on Comey findings that conflicted with Clinton’s public statements on her email use.

Republicans, though, ramped up their criticism not only of Clinton but of the Justice Department’s handling of the case. Goodlatte said the conclusion not to pursue charges “defies logic and the law” -- and once again criticized her for meeting on a tarmac in Phoenix with former President Bill Clinton just a week before the decision was announced.

“The timing of and circumstances surrounding this announcement are particularly troubling,” he said.

Goodlatte suggested that and other factors could have been grounds for recusal, but Lynch rebuffed the notion. And she insisted that the discussion with the former president was “social” and did not pertain to the email investigation.

Lynch has nevertheless expressed regret for the meeting and acknowledged that it had "cast a shadow" on the public perception of the Justice Department's independence.

Her limited answers on facts of the case, meanwhile, prompted some tense exchanges with lawmakers later in the hearing. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., repeatedly pressed Lynch on whether there was some legal prohibition on her discussing the case that did not apply to Comey, who has discussed the probe at length.

In a rapid-fire exchange, Lynch said she could not provide the same level of detail and they had “very different roles” in the case.

“There is no legal prohibition that can be cited here,” Forbes countered.

As they did last week when Comey was grilled by House Republicans, Democrats criticized their GOP colleagues for holding Tuesday’s hearing.

“The criminal investigation is closed. There was no intentional wrongdoing,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., top Democrat on the panel.

Meanwhile, a new poll reflects widespread public unease about the FBI decision.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed 56 percent disagreed with the FBI’s recommendation not to pursue charges. Just 35 percent approved. A separate NBC News tracking poll showed the Democratic presidential nominee’s lead over Republican Donald Trump narrowing to just 3 points.

Meanwhile, Lynch addressed police interactions with minorities in the aftermath of a violent week that brought that issue to the forefront.

The attorney general last week appealed for calm one day after a sniper who said he wanted to kill whites fatally shot five police officers in Dallas. The attack began during protests over the police killings of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot near St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling, who was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after being pinned to the pavement by two white officers.

Lynch, who was sworn in as attorney general on the same day as racially tinged riots occurred in Baltimore, has repeatedly said that one of her top priorities in office is to improve relationships between police and the communities they serve.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.