WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – It took 20 minutes for senators to finally introduce Attorney General Loretta Lynch at today’s Judiciary Committee hearing. First things first, they had to set the stage.
The powerful panel’s top members traded barbs about Supreme Court nominations, illegal immigration and private email servers, while the nation’s chief law enforcement official sat stoically, reorganized her papers and occasionally smiled at senators seated in an elevated semi-circle before her.
The hearing started off pleasantly enough. Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sat on a table beside his counterpart Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) waiting for Lynch to arrive.
As she walked in, the three greeted each other with big smiles and unforced pleasantries.
Then it was down to business.
Grassley’s opening statement about government branches’ “proper roles” hit all the hot buttons: Hillary Clinton’s private email server, iPhone encryption, alleged corruption at the Clinton Foundation, President Obama’s contested executive actions on illegal immigration, shutting down Guantanamo Bay, and swaps of suspected terrorists.
The Iowa conservative bemoaned a “deeply politicized” Department of Justice damaged by Lynch’s predecessor Eric Holder. He also dinged President Obama for “carelessly ignoring the rule of law.”
As Grassley skipped from one subject to the next, Lynch’s calm facade never cracked.
Much of the three-hour hearing focused on the contentious topics, with Republican senators grilling – and often interrupting – an unfailingly genial Lynch.
Supreme Court confirmation hearings
Chairman Grassley promised a “full blown debate” on holding Supreme Court nominee confirmation hearings in the future, but largely focused on other matters during his questioning.
Ranking Member Leahy took a different tack, excoriating committee Republicans for a “unilateral decision by some behind closed doors” to stop Supreme Court confirmation hearings before a nominee has even been named.
He noted that senators take an oath before God to uphold their constitutional duties, bat have now publicly reneged.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), presumed Democratic leader-in-waiting, noted mounting judicial emergencies due to vacancies on the federal bench. He pointed to Republicans’ unwillingness to confirm new federal judges, who enjoy lifetime appointments, as the backlog’s root cause.
Grassley retorted that the majority of the delays are due to the Obama administration dragging its feet, not his own dereliction of duty.
Schumer also weighed in on the SCOTUS nominee process, expressing disappointment that Lynch pulled herself out of the running. He told Lynch, a fellow New Yorker, “You would be a great Supreme Court justice.”
FBI iPhone encryption case
“We do not want a back door into Apple or anyone else’s technology,”Lynch asserted repeatedly.
GOP members weren’t easily convinced, pressing the attorney general for limits on the government’s right to compel companies to assist them in accessing tech devices.
Grassley pointed out that the current case is “less about one iPhone and more about the precedent that would be established.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) used his full seven minutes to press Lynch on legal precedents at the heart of the DOJ-Apple federal case.
Lynch sidestepped several attempts by Lee to extract specific limiting principles on how far the Justice Department can push companies before overstepping the law. He asked if Apple could be forced to unlock suspects’ cellphone cameras and microphones if it could aid an investigation. Lynch skirted the issue, repeatedly falling back on her mantra that “the type of assistance will vary from case to case.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Lynch if she’d support China requiring Apple to create a back door, but she didn’t bite, responding again that the DOJ’s request is narrow and does not involve a back door.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.) pushed Lynch — but in the opposite direction. As the senior senator from the state where the San Bernardino massacre occurred and Apple is headquartered, Feinstein walloped the tech company, saying, “It is my deep belief that no American company is above the law.”
Feinstein asked Lynch if it would be possible to eliminate online videos and bomb-making blueprints that have helped terrorists plan and execute previous attacks. Lynch responded that she was receptive to terror-fighting ideas, but did not commit to pursuing more injunctions through court orders.
Clinton email investigation
Hillary Clinton’s private email server played a major role at Wednesday’s hearing.
Lynch oversees the Department of Justice, which houses the FBI, and, thereby, serves as the the final word on whether the 2016 Democratic front-runner will face an amplified criminal investigation, grand jury probe or even an indictment.
Judiciary Republicans were eager to explore the Clinton issue from every angle.
Sen. Graham inquired if Lynch had discussed the investigation with Mr. Obama or White House aides. She responded, “I have not.” Graham followed up to ask if she plans to do so in the future. Lynch replied, “I do not.”
Seeing a chance to whack the White House, Graham suggest that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest should stop opining on a case he doesn’t know much about.
Grassley made mention that former President Bill Clinton appointed Lynch to her former post as U.S. attorney in New York, insinuating that a conflict of interest may exist — or appear to exist — for the attorney general when it comes to legal deliberations regarding the Clintons. Lynch bristled at the suggestion, prompting Grassley to clarify that he was strictly speaking about perceptions, not accusations.
Republican No. 2 Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) used a crafty strategy to pin down Lynch on who gave Bryan Pagliano, a former State staffer who set up Clinton’s home brew email server, legal immunity in the FBI investigation.
Cornyn began his questioning by confirming with Lynch that in the iPhone case, the FBI does not act alone and, in fact, requires DOJ lawyers to pursue legal actions. Lynch assented.
The Texas republican later used Lynch’s own statement to confirm she participated in the immunity process, asking, “Doesn’t the buck stop with you?” The attorney general refused to discuss specifics, but blanketly stated, “I would not necessarily be involved” in every decision in every case.
While the back-and-forth played out on Capitol Hill, the Republican National Committee filed two lawsuits in federal court related to Clinton’s emails.
Politico explained, “The first suit seeks electronic records sent to and from Clinton via text or Blackberry Messenger and emails to senior aides. The second suit seeks communications between senior State Department officials, Clinton’s presidential campaign and other Clinton allies after her time at State.”
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales