Republicans took dead aim at Hillary Clinton’s already-shaky credibility Wednesday, using the FBI’s recommendation not to charge her as ammunition not only for wooing voters but also for unifying a fragile Republican Party.
GOP lawmakers moved quickly to hold hearings on her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
FBI Director James Comey will testify Thursday morning before a Republican-led House of Representatives committee on how he decided the case. Separately, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., sent Comey a four-page letter seeking more information.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whose private half-hour meeting last week with former President Bill Clinton on a parked plane at the Phoenix airport became a volatile precursor to the Comey finding, is to testify before the judiciary panel next Tuesday.
In the Senate, Republican leaders urged the FBI to make its Saturday interview with Clinton public. Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., sent Comey a letter seeking answers to 19 questions. Another committee chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sent Comey a letter asking for more details about his decision not to recommend charges against Clinton.
Republicans were energized. They saw not only a strong weapon against Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, but also a badly needed way to bring together a Republican Party full of loyalists worried about likely nominee Donald Trump.
“This adds more fuel to the fire for the Republican base,” said Nathan Gonzales, a Washington-based political analyst.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., set the tone. “There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered. So we’re going to be asking those questions,” he told a Capitol Hill news conference.
Director Comey’s presentation shredded the claims that Secretary Clinton made throughout the year with respect to this issue.
House Speaker Paul Ryan
They all saw a huge opening, a way to keep the political narrative focused on Clinton and keep her on the defensive.
Political surveys show both Trump and Clinton have unusually high negative ratings with the American public, and each stands to benefit from votes that are not for them but against the other person.
That’s why the email controversy is valuable for Republicans. By 45 to 37 percent, voters in a Quinnipiac poll last month said Trump was more trustworthy than Clinton.
Democrats continued to defend Clinton. Any decision would have been controversial, noted Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from Southern California who’s the senior member of his party on the House Intelligence Committee.
People who disagree with Comey “should not leap to assume some base or illicit motive, and the legislative branch should have respect for the institutional prerogatives of other co-equal branches of government,” Schiff said.
Republicans scoffed. They know the power of the email controversy. In McClatchy focus groups this year in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida, the subject came up over and over among undecided voters. They may not know the details, but they saw Clinton’s use of the personal server reinforcing their concern that she’s arrogant and smug.
Republicans mounted an all-out effort Wednesday to convince those voters that their concerns have merit.
What is the difference, in the FBI’s view, between extreme carelessness and gross negligence?
Sen. Ron Johnson in letter to James Comey
Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, recalled that after the nominating conventions rcandidates receive a deep classified briefing.
“I think the Director of National Intelligence (James) Clapper should deny Hillary Clinton access to classified information during the campaign, given how she so recklessly handled classified information,” he said.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday will be the first opportunity for the Republicans to make their points. Its chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the “fact pattern” Comey outlined Tuesday “made clear Secretary Clinton violated the law.” In addition to Comey, those testifying are Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, who has also been critical of Clinton’s use of a private email server, and I. Charles McCullough III, the intelligence community inspector general, whose request for an FBI investigation led to Comey’s decision.
Republicans indicated Wednesday that they intend to examine every aspect of the probe that led to Comey’s decision. Among the eight questions directed at Comey in a letter, House Judiciary Chairman Goodlatte asked the FBI director to explain how Comey’s term “extremely careless” to describe Clinton’s handling of classified information differed from “gross negligence,” the words used to describe a crime under federal law.
This raises many questions.
Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chairman, House Judiciary Committee
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Johnson asked a similar question in his letter to Comey. “If the evidence that the FBI collected about Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email account and server did not constitute gross negligence, what set of facts would cause the FBI to recommend criminal charges under the gross negligence standard?” he asked.
Grassley’s letter went further. Among his questions: “Did the FBI investigate, or is the FBI currently investigating, allegations of public corruption relating to the Clinton Foundation and former President Clinton’s speaking fees from foreign governments? If not, why not?”
Grassley sought answers by July 20.
All this will be wrapped into a succinct message Republicans want to hammer into the psyche of the American voter: “It’s a big disappointment that charges weren’t brought forward,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
Megan Henney and Eleanor Mueller contributed to this article.