Attorney General Loretta Lynch met with former president Bill Clinton at the airport in Phoenix this week – an encounter that she described as "primarily social," but one that drew instant attention because of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into the email practices of his wife, Hillary, while she was secretary of state.
Lynch publicly confirmed the meeting, first reported by ABC15 and others, saying it occurred at the airport where she had just landed for a stop on her nationwide tour of law enforcement agencies. She said that she, her husband and the former president discussed their travels, the former president's grandchildren and the golf he had played in Arizona.
"No discussions were held on any cases or anything of that," Lynch said, "and he didn't raise anything about that either."
The FBI and the Justice Department are in the midst of a high-profile investigation into leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state – a probe that has, at times, been the subject of intense focus on the campaign trail. The decision on whether to bring charges in the case would ultimately run through Lynch.
A Justice Department official familiar with the meeting said that Bill Clinton initiated the encounter, boarding Lynch's plane — to the surprise of some aides — after the group had landed in Phoenix Monday evening. The official said Lynch staffers remain unsure how exactly Clinton knew the attorney general was at the airport — though it was possible their security details had coordinated as often happens when two high-profile figures are in the same place — and there were no conversations between Lynch and Clinton aides to set up the meeting.
The conversation, the official said, lasted about 30 minutes.
A Bill Clinton aide also disputed the notion that the encounter was "set up," saying the attorney general and the former president "caught up after they realized they were both sitting on the same tarmac." The aide noted that Clinton even met briefly with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, when the men happened to be at the same airport earlier this year.
Despite the innocuous descriptions of the interaction, the encounter generated instant buzz in political circles. Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump said on The Mike Gallagher Show that the meeting was "really a sneak," "so terrible" and "so horrible." He also said it was "one of the big stories of this week, of this month, of this year."
"This is terrible and nobody can understand why nothing's happened," Trump said. "And 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?"
CNN political commentator and former Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote on Twitter that he took Lynch and Clinton's "word that their convo in Phoenix didn't touch on probe." But he said it was "foolish to create such optics."
Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Glen Caplin declined comment Thursday on whether it was appropriate for the former president to speak informally with Lynch while the FBI matter is unresolved.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing, "The bottom line is simply that both the president and the Attorney General understand how important is for the Department of Justice to conduct investigations that are free of political interference … The rule of law is paramount." He said he had no insights into Lynch's meeting nor into the investigation concerning Hillary Clinton's email.
"Public trust would be eroded if people were not making an effort to make clear that these investigations should not be influenced by politics," Earnest said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman provided transcripts of Lynch's comments on the matter at public press conferences but declined to comment further. Asked if the meeting might create the appearance of impropriety with regard to the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email, Lynch said the case was being handled by career prosecutors and FBI agents, according to the transcript.
The Washington Post's Anne Gearan and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.