Fallout from disclosure of former President Bill Clinton’s ill-advised informal chat with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch on an airport tarmac in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this week came swiftly on Friday.
Lynch announced that she was effectively taking herself out of the chain of command in deciding whether Hillary Clinton broke federal law by using a private email server for sensitive government business during her four years as secretary of state and whether to seek an indictment.
During a discussion with Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, Lynch acknowledged repeatedly that her meeting with Bill Clinton was a mistake that “is painful to me.” And she said that while she would review whatever findings emerge from the investigation by career FBI agents and government lawyers, “I will be accepting their recommendation and their plans to go forward.”
The Justice Department had confirmed earlier today that Lynch will support the recommendations of FBI officials and career federal prosecutors on whether the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee engaged in criminal activity by regularly receiving and transmitting sensitive or top-secret government documents on a private email server kept at her home, instead of using the government email system.
Her decision, first reported by The New York Times, appears to have been forced by the political uproar sparked by reports that she invited Bill Clinton aboard her private plane in Phoenix for what she described as a “primarily social” and inconsequential chat about Clinton’s grandchildren and golf game.
Although the roughly half hour meeting came about through happenstance, when the two prominent figures crossed paths at the airport, Republicans and Democrats alike complained about the bad “optics” of Lynch talking with Bill Clinton about anything while the federal investigation of his wife’s mishandling of government email was moving towards a climax.
Billionaire Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told a conservative radio host yesterday that the meeting was “really a sneak” and a “terrible” travesty of justice, while Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said the meeting underscored the need to appoint a “special counsel” to assume charge of the federal investigation of Clinton, to assure the integrity of the process.
Democrats including David Axelrod, the former top political adviser to President Obama, and Sen. Christopher Coons of Delaware complained that the meeting between Lynch and Bill Clinton provided dreadful optics and undermined confidence in the integrity of the federal investigation.
According to media reports, Lynch has been saying for months that she would be guided in her decision on whether to seek an indictment based on the findings of career professionals at the FBI and Justice Department who are relatively immune to political influence. And she has said she has scrupulously avoided discussing the case with President Obama or any other White House officials, who are strongly supporting Clinton in the coming election.
A Justice Department official told The Washington Post today that the attorney general will accept the “determinations and findings of career prosecutors and lawyers as well as FBI investigators” and FBI director James B. Comey.
In May, Comey said that he would not be rushed into wrapping up the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s emails, and would not say whether the highly sensitive probe would be completed by the November presidential election. “We want to do it well and we want to do it promptly, so I feel pressure to do both of those things,” Comey said.
By effectively taking herself out of the chain of command in determining whether or not to prosecute Clinton, Lynch has ruled out the possibility of an Obama administration political appointee overruling the findings and recommendations of federal investigators and prosecutors.
Many law enforcement experts have said that it’s highly unlikely that Clinton will be prosecuted for any wrongdoing, although she clearly disregarded warnings at the State Department that her communications practices were in violation of department policy and risked breaching national security. But in the case of a close call, Lynch could have tipped the scale one way or another if she had kept herself within the final decision making process.
Now, however, Comey and senior career lawyers at the Justice Department will have the final say.