In the first such call from a member of Congress, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on Tuesday asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to name an independent counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
“The attorney general has a special duty to pursue justice even when political considerations run counter to doing so,” Cornyn said in a letter to Lynch, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama.
A senior Republican senator, Charles Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, came close to echoing Cornyn’s request.
“Chairman Grassley believes that the Justice Department should take whatever steps are necessary to reassure the public that the decisions about whether anyone is ultimately prosecuted in this matter are made solely on merits of the case, without regard to any political considerations,” said Beth Levine, a Judiciary Committee spokeswoman. “That includes . . . considering an independent counsel.”
The move by Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and as the Senate majority whip a member of the Republican leadership, opens a new avenue for Republicans to try and weaken Clinton’s presidential candidacy, this time by ratcheting up pressure on the Justice Department to criminally investigate her or appoint an independent prosecutor to do so.
The subject, however, is a touchy one amid the 2016 presidential race, and a number of other Republican senators declined to say Tuesday whether they would join Cornyn’s call.
The present circumstances surrounding her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state could not be more extraordinary, nor the conflicts greater.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas
Congressional Democrats have largely defended Clinton from a spate of inquiries on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Tuesday that there’s been “no indication that Hillary Clinton is the target of a criminal investigation.”
Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the judiciary panel, said he did not see any “extraordinary circumstances that would warrant a special counsel,” and he called Cornyn’s request “nothing more than yet another political ploy.”
But in a statement, Cornyn insisted that Clinton’s “misconduct is evident.”
Such a suggestion is nothing more than yet another political ploy.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont
The FBI, on a referral from the inspector general for the intelligence community, has already spent weeks investigating whether national security was compromised by Clinton’s decision to conduct official business over a private email account between 2009 and 2013. Two intelligence agencies recently upheld an initial finding that two emails contained top secret information.
In March, shortly after it was disclosed that she used a private server, Clinton denied that she sent or received classified information over the server at her New York home. She said she set it up as a convenience to avoid carrying two hand-held devices, for official and personal use.
After the State Department and intelligence agencies began to classify portions of scores of her emails, she said that none of the information was marked as classified at the time it was transmitted.
Last week, Clinton apologized for her mistake.
As a condition of obtaining a security clearance, government officials are trained to recognize classified information, whether it is marked or not. It’s unclear whether that obligation could expose Clinton to legal liability.
In his letter to Lynch, Cornyn said that Clinton’s email practices “limited the public accountability on which our government depends and put our national security at risk.”
He cited appointments of “politically independent individuals” to look into sensitive matters in the past. The attorney general has authority to make such an appointment.
Communications aides at the Justice Department and Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on Cornyn’s letter.
Clinton’s email practices are the subject of inquiries by three Republican-led congressional panels, one a House select committee focusing primarily on whether she bears any responsibility for inadequate security in advance of fatal attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.
Inquiries by the Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, however, have been slowed by an impasse over their inability to obtain testimony from a former Clinton aide who set up and maintained her personal server, even while working at the State Department. The aide, Bryan Pagliano, has declined to cooperate with either congressional or FBI inquiries, saying he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination if ordered to testify.
On Monday, Grassley and Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wrote Lynch asking her to explore whether the department would consider Pagliano’s Fifth Amendment rights to have been waived if he and his attorney told panel investigators what he knows on a confidential basis.