A strange thing is uniting Democrats and Republicans in Washington: the widespread disapproval of a meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac in Arizona.
Lynch told reporters that the impromptu conversation on her government aircraft in Phoenix on Monday centered on social issues, from talk of grandchildren and Clinton's golf game to their recent travels. Nothing came up, the attorney general said, about any ongoing Justice Department investigations.
But the chat took place in the midst of an FBI investigation into the security of Hillary Clinton's private email server, which she used to conduct government business as secretary of state. And that's creating a major appearance problem for the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House and the top federal prosecutor in the country.
Democratic political strategist David Axelrod tweeted:
On CNN, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., praised the attorney general for her law enforcement bona fides but offered this advice: "I think she should have said, 'Look, I recognize you have a long record of leadership on fighting crime, but this is not the time for us to have that conversation. After the election is over, I welcome your advice and input.'"
Clinton's political opponent in the race for the White House was less measured. Republican Donald Trump told radio talk show host Mike Gallagher the meeting was "terrible."
"I think it's the biggest story, one of the big stories of this week, of this month, of this year," Trump declared. "I've been talking about the rigged system, how it's rigged and, you know, this is terrible ... 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? I mean, who would do this?"
The No. 2 Republican in the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn, had been calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Clinton email setup since last September. In congressional hearings since then, Cornyn has pushed the attorney general about the independence of the inquiry and whether the White House was receiving updates on the status of the case.
Cornyn said the disclosure of the meeting between Bill Clinton and Lynch only heightened his concerns. "'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 said in a statement.
From the standpoint of legal ethics, Lynch did nothing wrong, said New York University law school professor Stephen Gillers. Gillers said he didn't think the attorney general needed to recuse herself from overseeing the email probe. But Gillers took a sterner tone with Bill Clinton.
"It was the height of insensitivity for the former president to approach the attorney general," Gillers said. "He put her in a very difficult position. She wasn't really free to say she wouldn't talk to a former president," after Clinton boarded her plane in Arizona.
"He jeopardized her independence and did create an appearance of impropriety going onto her plane," Gillers added.
Gillers said he takes Lynch at her word that no sensitive law enforcement matters came up in the 30-minute airport chat.
But, he said, the episode "feeds the dominant narrative that the Clintons don't follow the usual rules, that they're free to have back channel communications like this one and that's true even if we assume as I do that nothing improper was said. The public will be suspicious."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he didn't want to "second guess" Lynch and that her 30-year career in law enforcement should be a source of trust.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
On Monday, former President Bill Clinton was waiting for his plane to depart Phoenix just as Attorney General Loretta Lynch landed on the same tarmac. Bill Clinton decided to board Lynch's plane for a visit. And now the Justice Department is on the defensive. That's because Lynch is overseeing the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email set up.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Attorney General Loretta Lynch says the impromptu chat with Bill Clinton onboard her government plane was a social call, not an attempt to influence the ongoing FBI investigation of his wife.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LORETTA LYNCH: He did come over and say hello and speak to my husband and myself and talk about his grandchildren and his travels and things like that. And no discussions were held on any cases or anything of that. And he didn't raise anything about that either.
JOHNSON: But even some Democratic allies say the meeting was a bad idea. Here's Senator Chris Coons of Delaware on CNN.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS COONS: I don't think it sends the right signal. I think she should have steered clear.
JOHNSON: Republican Donald Trump was less measured on the Mike Gallagher radio show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MIKE GALLAGHER SHOW")
DONALD TRUMP: You see a thing like this and even in terms of judgment, how bad a judgment is it for him or for her to do this? I mean, who would do this?
JOHNSON: In Congress, Republican leaders like Senator John Cornyn of Texas seized on the meeting to renew their calls for a special prosecutor. The attorney general says career lawyers and agents are driving the case, people who follow the law, not politics. But legal ethics experts say that chat in Phoenix this week did create an appearance of impropriety by Bill Clinton.
Stephen Gillers is a law professor at New York University.
STEPHEN GILLERS: I think it was the height of insensitivity for the former president to approach the attorney general. He put her in a very difficult position. She wasn't really free to say she would not talk to a former president.
JOHNSON: Gillers said the attorney general did what she could to explain the boundaries of the conversation. And he doesn't think she needs to recuse herself from the case. Still, he says...
GILLERS: It feeds the dominant narrative that the Clintons don't follow the usual rules. And that's true even if we assume, as I do, that nothing improper was said. The public will be suspicious.
JOHNSON: In the past, Hillary Clinton has said she's not worried about the FBI investigation. But her campaign hasn't addressed the controversy over her husband's meeting with Lynch. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.