Attorney General Loretta Lynch was “devastated” by the impromptu visit former President Bill Clinton made onto her plane on an Arizona tarmac, a top Justice Department official told the DOJ inspector general.
The infamous meeting, which drove speculation of DOJ bias in the Hillary Clinton email probe, was recounted in excruciating detail in the inspector general report released Thursday, which covered Bill Clinton’s reasoning for making the trip to Lynch’s plane (“I don’t want her to think I’m afraid to shake hands with her because she’s the Attorney General”), and her own recollections of when she realized that the former President was about to overstay his welcome (Clinton moved some of her bags on the plane so he could take a seat.)
DOJ Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz found no evidence that the Clinton email probe was discussed. However, he said Lynch made an “error in judgment” in not cutting the conversation short, given its problematic appearance, and that she should have made more of an effort to clear the air publicly.
Lynch told the IG investigators as the conversation with Clinton ““went on and on,” her concerns about it grew.
The incident started when Clinton was told by staff that Lynch’s plane, delayed in Phoenix while on a community policing tour, was only about 20 to 30 yards from his. He denied that he delayed his departure from Phoenix, where he was participating in campaign events for his wife, in order to speak to her.
“I literally didn’t know she was there until somebody told me she was there,” he said. “And we looked out the window and it was really close and all of her staff was unloading, so I thought she’s about to get off and I’ll just go shake hands with her when she gets off. I don’t want her to think I’m afraid to shake hands with her because she’s the Attorney General.”
By the time he approached her plane, most of the staff that had been traveling with her had exited for the motorcade waiting for them, and only Lynch, her husband, and her security remained onboard.
Lynch’s aides told the inspector general they had no idea of Clinton’s plans to board the plane, while Lynch recalled only learning when her head of security informed her that Clinton sought to speak with her.
“And I think my initial reaction was the profound statement, ‘What?’ Something like that. And he repeated that,” she told IG investigators, adding she was surprised he wanted to speak to her because she said they lacked any social relationship.
She thought they would briefly exchange pleasantries. However, Clinton, she recalled, spent the first few minutes chatting up the others, including flight crew on the plane.
After a few minutes of then chatting with Lynch, Clinton then moved tote bags she had placed on a bench, and took a seat to keep talking.
He spoke about Phoenix, golf, their travels and their grandchildren, Lynch recalled.
Lynch said Clinton complimented her tenure as attorney general, which Clinton also recalled, while denying that he called her his favorite cabinet member.
“I like her, but I’m very close to Tom Vilsack and was very close to a couple of the others, so I couldn’t have said that, but I do like her a lot,” he told the IG.
Lynch remembered the compliment as something he “would have said that to every cabinet member at that time.”
They only discussed Hillary Clinton in the context of her and Lynch being grandmothers, Bill Clinton recalled. Both denied discussion of the email probe, other Justice Department investigations, the election or any suggestion that Lynch would get a position in a Hillary Clinton administration.
The conversation lasted 20 minutes, Lynch recalled, before one of her staffers boarded the plane to intervene.
Meanwhile, among Lynch’s staff waiting on the tarmac in her motorcade, a panic was beginning to swell, according to the report:
The Deputy Chief of Staff said that they quickly realized that the meeting was problematic, because Clinton was not just the former President but was also the husband of someone who was under investigation. The Deputy Chief of Staff said that she felt “shocked,” and that they all “just felt completely…blindsided.” The Senior Counselor said that they immediately were aware that the meeting was ill-advised and that the “optics were not great.”
They called DOJ’s Public Affairs Director Melanie Newman and “sounded the alarm.”
After five minutes, a DOJ press staffer accompanying Lynch on the trip asked a security official waiting in the car meant for Lynch what was going on. The press official informed a photographer waiting outside Lynch’s plane that the attorney general would not be taking pictures and that he should go back to his car.
After a discussion with her other staffers, another official, Lynch’s senior counselor, decided to reboard the plane.
“I don’t know what’s going on up there, but I should at least go up to intervene or help her if she needs help,” she recalled thinking. “It was part uncertainty and part kind of like this is a bad idea.”
After being briefly stopped by security, the staffer made it on the plane, but could not recall hearing what was being discussed. She thought Lynch gave the vibe of being “uncomfortable and wanted the meeting to be done.”
Clinton took another five minutes to say his goodbyes, the staffer recounted, and when he left she recalled Lynch looking “kind of … gray and, you know, not pleased.”
Newman, the public affairs director, recalled Lynch being “devastated” by the meeting:
[Lynch] doesn’t take mistakes lightly, and she felt like she had made…an incredible…mistake in judgment by saying yes instead of no, that he could come on the plane. But also, she’s like the most polite, Southern person alive. I, I don’t know in what circumstances she would have said no, or what would have happened if she had said no…. I would have much preferred a story that the Attorney General turned a former President of the United States away on the tarmac, but…she doesn’t make mistakes, and she was not pleased with herself for making this kind of high-stakes mistake.
Clinton, in his interview with the inspector general investigators, said he was surprised by the scrutiny the meeting attracted.
“[T]he mainstream media wasn’t as bad on that as they were on a lot of things, I thought, I think the ones that were criticizing me, I thought you know, I don’t know whether I’m more offended that they think I’m crooked or that they think I’m stupid,” he said, according to the report.
Read the report, where the section on the tarmac meeting starts on page 202, below: