WASHINGTON » Attorney General Loretta Lynch is expressing regret that she sat down with Bill Clinton while his wife is under federal criminal investigation, a chance encounter she acknowledges “cast a shadow” on the public’s perception of a case bound to influence the presidential campaign.
“I certainly wouldn’t do it again,” Lynch said of the meeting. For Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, the episode raised the risk that voters will see her anew as half of a power couple that makes its own rules.
Lynch hastened to add that she would follow the recommendations of career prosecutors on whether to file criminal charges at the close of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, removing herself from that decision.
The attorney general’s remarks at a conference in Colorado 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. They 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 chat was largely social and her department’s probe of Hillary Clinton was not discussed.
Asked what she was thinking in permitting the meeting to occur, Lynch said: “I completely get that question, and I think it is the question of the day.”
The outcome of the investigation is likely to shape the presidential campaign, whether to Clinton’s benefit if she emerges unscathed or to Republican rival Donald Trump’s advantage in the event that she or anyone close to her winds up prosecuted.
Bill Clinton’s approach of the attorney general also could aggravate questions of trust that already hang over Hillary Clinton in the minds of some voters — even if she’s never charged. She has struggled through the campaign to overcome unease about her honesty even while she asserts that she is more trustworthy than Trump on issues that matter most to voters.
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 she had decided even before the tarmac meeting 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 Bill Clinton 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 the investigation is being done independently and without regard to politics by federal agents and career prosecutors.
“This case will be resolved by the team that’s been working on it from the beginning,” she said.
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 attention. In February, for instance, he compared supporters of Clinton opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders to GOP tea party activists and 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.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the third-ranking House Republican, said Lynch should recuse herself entirely from the case and appoint a special prosecutor. Lynch had said she would still be briefed on the investigation and review the results, but let the career officials make the call on whether a prosecution should go ahead.
“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 says 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.
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 today. “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 Ken Thomas, Donna Cassata, Stephen Braun, Kathleen Hennessy and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.