WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged Friday that her meeting with Bill Clinton while his wife is under federal investigation “cast a shadow” on the public’s perception of a case playing heavily into the presidential campaign.
“I certainly wouldn’t do it again,” Lynch said of the meeting, which created immediate bipartisan angst and underscored the political consequences of the FBI-led probe into the former secretary of state’s email.
Lynch hastened to add that she would follow the recommendations of career prosecutors on whether to file criminal charges in the case, removing herself from that decision.
Her statements were aimed at tamping down concerns that the investigation could be politically tainted or that Lynch, an Obama administration appointee, might overrule the findings of agents and prosecutors who have spent months looking into the possible mishandling of classified information on the private email server Clinton used as secretary of state.
Lynch said she understood that her private meeting with Clinton aboard her plane in Phoenix might be seen as compromising the neutrality of the investigation, even though she said the probe of Hillary Clinton was not discussed.
Asked what she was thinking in permitting the meeting to occur, she said, “I completely get that question, and I think it is the question of the day.”
The outcome of the investigation is bound to influence the presidential campaign, whether to Clinton’s benefit if she emerges unscathed or Republican rival Donald Trump in the event that she or anyone close to her winds up prosecuted. Bill Clinton’s approach of the attorney general also could reinforce suspicions that the Clintons play by different rules than anyone else and aggravate questions of trust that already hang over Hillary Clinton in the minds of some voters — even if she’s never charged.
Trump tweeted that “Bill’s meeting was probably initiated and demanded by Hillary,” without offering evidence of that. “Does anybody really believe that meeting was just a coincidence?” he asked. The Clinton campaign declined to comment on Lynch’s remarks.
Lynch said at a conference in Colorado that she had decided even before the meeting with Bill Clinton to heed the recommendations of a team of federal agents and career prosecutors who have been working on the case. But she acknowledged that the talk with Clinton, which occurred on her plane in Phoenix, had become a “painful” episode that reinforced the need for her to cede ultimate decision-making authority to others.
The encounter was especially sensitive given the repeated efforts by Lynch and FBI Director James Comey to stress that their investigation is being done independently and without regard for politics.
“This case will be resolved by the team that’s been working on it from the beginning,” she said, vowing to accept the findings and recommendations of a team of federal agents and career prosecutors.
Neither the White House nor Obama was involved in Lynch’s decision to say publicly that she will accept the recommendation of her agents and prosecutors in the case, said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest.
Bill Clinton, like his wife’s campaign, declined through spokespeople to comment on Lynch’s remarks.
It’s certainly not the first time the ex-president’s missteps, often on behalf of his wife, have attracted negative attention. In February, for instance, he compared supporters of Clinton opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders to GOP tea party activists and more recently described the controversy over his wife’s private email server as a “game.”
Congressional Republicans seized on the meeting between the former president and the attorney general.
“The notion that the prosecutor, the person who runs the Justice Department, would spend 30 minutes in a private conversation with the spouse of someone her department is investigating raises all sorts of red flags and even Democrats have admitted it,” GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told Miami 610 WIOD Radio.
Lynch told reporters earlier this week that the meeting was unplanned and happened while the former president was waiting to depart on another plane. She said he walked over and boarded her plane after she landed there.
She said Clinton talked about his grandchildren and told her he had been playing golf in Arizona. She said they discussed former Attorney General Janet Reno, whom they both know.
“We basically said hello, and I congratulated him on his grandchildren as people tend to do,” she said Friday. “It really was a social meeting,” she added. “He spoke to me, he spoke to my husband.”
Orlando, Florida, attorney John Morgan, a longtime Clinton fundraiser, said that’s the Bill Clinton he knows. “If, in the plane next to his was me, he would come over and come up, because that is what he does,” Morgan said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Loretta Lynch or Loretta Lynn. He’s coming over if he knows you.”
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Stephen Braun, Ken Thomas, Kathleen Hennessy and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.