It’s not clear who showed worse political judgement – former President Bill Clinton or Attorney General Loretta Lynch. But their impromptu, half-hour, private meeting Monday evening on an airplane tarmac in Phoenix marked a setback for Hillary Clinton in her desperate effort to get out from under the controversy over her mishandling of emails at the State Department.
Lynch and the former president’s spokesperson said the meeting was an innocent and innocuous conversation between the attorney general and the former president in which they mostly talked about golf and compared notes on grandchildren. The two prominent figures crossed paths by happenstance at the airport and decided to chat privately on a plane.
But with Lynch responsible for overseeing an FBI investigation and making the final decision on whether to prosecute Hillary Clinton for mishandling sensitive government email during her four years as secretary of state, the optics were so bad that some Democrats for once agreed with Donald Trump that the meeting smelled fishy and revives concerns about whether the Justice Department can conduct an independent investigation of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
"It was really a sneak," a delighted Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said in an interview with conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher. “You see a thing like this and, even in terms of judgment, how bad of judgment is it for him or for her to do this? Who would do this?"
The incident provided added grist for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican majority whip, in renewing his call for a “special counsel” to take over the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was at State. Investigators are exploring whether she may have compromised government security and violated revised departmental regulations requiring the use of a government email system for all official business.
On the Democratic side, David Axelrod, the former senior political adviser to President Obama and strong Hillary Clinton supporter, tweeted that while he took Lynch and Bill Clinton at their word that the email investigation didn’t come up during their meeting, it was “foolish to create such optics” by meeting now.
“I do agree … that it doesn’t send the right signal,” Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE) said on Thursday morning on CNN. While he described Lynch – the first black woman to head the Justice Department – as an “independent” attorney general who has shown “excellent judgment,” he said she should have put off meeting with the former president until after the election.
“I think she should have steered clear even of a brief, casual, social meeting with the former president,” Coons said.
Clinton’s use of a private email server for government business during her four years as secretary of state was first disclosed 15 months ago by the House special committee that was investigating the government’s response to the September 2012 terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomatic and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya.
With the release on Tuesday of the committee’s final report that contained little if any new damaging evidence about Clinton’s conduct before, during or after the attacks, a Justice Department and FBI investigation of Clinton’s use of email at State is the last remaining obstacle for the former first lady in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination next month.
While many legal experts doubt the FBI will recommend indictments of Clinton or her aides, the probe continues to hang over Clinton’s campaign as a source of great anxiety.
During a news conference in Phoenix on Tuesday, Lynch confirmed her meeting with Bill Clinton and vigorously denied that the two discussed any matter pending before her department, including the email probe. "I did see President Clinton at the Phoenix airport as he was leaving and he spoke to myself and my husband on the plane," Lynch said, according to CNN. "Our conversation was a great deal about grandchildren, it was primarily social about our travels and he mentioned golf he played in Phoenix."
An aide to Bill Clinton told reporters that Lynch had accurately characterized their conversation and that he always extends the courtesy of a private conversation when around cabinet members, lawmakers and other dignitaries, according to media reports.
Further pressed on whether the meeting might have compromised her department’s impartiality in the investigation, Lynch said in Los Angeles on Wednesday that the email investigation was being handled by career investigators and agents “who always follow the facts and the law.”
Lynch, a Harvard Law graduate and the former U.S attorney for the Eastern District, has generally received high marks for setting a fresh new tone after succeeding Eric Holder as attorney general in April 2015. She has been circumspect about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, realizing, no doubt, that it is likely to be the most important and consequential decision she makes as attorney general.
Shortly after Obama formally endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in June, Lynch dismissed suggestions during an appearance on Fox News Sunday that she could be influenced by the president in deciding whether or not to seek charges against Clinton in the email investigation. She told host Chris Wallace that she has never discussed the case with the president or anyone else at the White House.
"That's not the kind of relationship that I have with people there, and it would be inappropriate to do so."
Yet in meeting in private with Clinton’s husband aboard a plane on Monday evening when the FBI investigation is likely to be drawing to a close, Lynch left herself wide open to questions about her political common sense, if not her integrity as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. And one wonders what Bill Clinton was thinking when he encouraged the private conversation between the two.
"This incident does nothing to instill confidence in the American people that her department can fully and fairly conduct this investigation, and that's why a Special Counsel is needed now more than ever," Cornyn, the Senate Republican whip, said in a statement.