Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said Friday that she would accept recommendations from career prosecutors and FBI agents leading the probe into the use of a private email server by Hillary Clinton during her time as secretary of state — though she stopped short of fully removing herself or other political appointees from the case.
The announcement from Lynch was a clear attempt to quiet mounting criticism that she — as the head of the Justice Department in a Democratic administration — cannot be trusted to oversee the probe of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. While she did not promise a full recusal — saying that “would mean I wouldn’t even be briefed on what the findings were” — she seemed to confirm that she would not veto whatever was proposed to her by those investigating the case.
Lynch said officials would develop a chronology of what happened and provide recommendations on what to do, including “the final determination as to how to proceed.”
“I will be accepting their recommendations,” she said.
Lynch made the comments during an interview with Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. She said that in the wake of a controversial, impromptu meeting she had with former president Bill Clinton aboard her private plane at a Phoenix airport, she felt it was “important that people see what that process is like” with regard to the investigation involving his wife.
The attorney general personally gets involved in a relatively small number of cases — typically weighing in on the most high-profile or those that produce disputes among others at the Justice Department. Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., for example, decided to charge former general and CIA director David H. Petraeus with a misdemeanor, though prosecutors and the FBI had pushed for a case of making a false statement, a felony.
One former Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to not jeopardize employment prospects, said Lynch taking a more back-seat role in the Clinton investigation could create a “slippery slope.”
“It might be convenient this time, but what about next time, when you don’t want to follow the recommendation of career prosecutors?” the official said. “It’s not the way things should work.”
Lynch said she had “already determined” that she would accept the recommendations of career prosecutors and agents before she met with Bill Clinton for what she has described as a social conversation about travel, grandchildren and golf.
Republicans have said the meeting creates the appearance of a possible conflict of interest and undermines the overall integrity of the probe, even if Lynch’s description of the session is truthful. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called for her to appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email set-up.
In Denver on Friday, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, suggested that the meeting did not happen by chance.
“Oh, just a coincidence,” he said sarcastically during a speech at the Western Conservative Summit. “He just happened to be at the airport at this time — think of it. Just happened to be at the airport.”
Trump accused Hillary Clinton of being “so guilty,” and he speculated that Bill Clinton and Lynch may have discussed the case. He said he was skeptical to read that the discussion involved Clinton’s grandchildren, because such a chat would not go on very long. Officials have said the conversation lasted as long as 30 minutes.
“I love my grandchildren so much. But if I talk about them for more than about nine or 10 seconds . . . I love my grandchildren . . . after that, what are you going to say?” Trump said.
Lynch acknowledged that questions about the meeting with Bill Clinton were “reasonable,” and while she did not directly address why she had consented to the session, she said, “I certainly wouldn’t do it again.” Later, asked what Holder neglected to tell her when she took the job, she joked, “Where the lock on the plane door was.”
The Hillary Clinton campaign and a Bill Clinton spokesman declined to comment after Lynch’s remarks.
Speaking to reporters Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said when it came to Lynch’s announcement that she would accept the FBI and Justice Department’s findings in the probe of Clinton’s email, “the White House and the president were not at all involved in that decision.”
Earnest said that while he had not discussed the meeting between Bill Clinton and Lynch with President Obama, “he believes this matter should be handled without regard to politics. . . . This is an independent investigation that is deliberately being shielded from any political interference.”
It is unclear who, precisely, will make the ultimate decision on how the probe of Hillary Clinton’s email should be resolved, if Lynch indeed will be serving as more of a rubber stamp.
Lynch said the matter from the beginning has been handled by career FBI agents and prosecutors, and their findings will ultimately be reviewed by supervisors, including FBI Director James B. Comey.
She emphasized, as she has in the past, that the team is “acting independently” and said she did not have insight into the “nuts and bolts” of the probe — including the timing of when it might be resolved.
Former federal prosecutor Barak Cohen said he was unsure how frequently attorneys general veto the recommendations of career prosecutors, though it’s common for other high-ranking Justice Department officials to weigh in. And FBI agents, he said, typically need the approval of federal prosecutors to bring charges.
It is likely, of course, that Lynch knows the direction of the probe — which officials have described previously as being in its latter stages and unlikely to result in charges against Clinton. Federal officials have already interviewed top Clinton aides but have not yet questioned the presumptive nominee herself.
Juliet Eilperin, Anne Gearan, Adam Goldman, Brian Murphy, Ellen Nakashima and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.