Friday, July 01, 2016

Loretta Lynch to Accept F.B.I. Recommendations in Clinton Email Inquiry
New York Times
JULY 1, 2016

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, conceding that her airport meeting with former President Bill Clinton this week had cast a shadow over the federal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email account, said Friday that she would accept whatever recommendations career prosecutors and the F.B.I. director made about whether to bring charges in the case.

Ms. Lynch said she had decided this spring to defer to the recommendations of her staff and the F.B.I. because her status as a political appointee sitting in judgment on a politically charged case would raise questions of a conflict of interest. But the meeting with Mr. Clinton, she acknowledged, had deepened those questions, and she said she now felt compelled to explain publicly her reasoning to try to put the concerns to rest.

“People have a whole host of reasons to have questions about how we in government do our business,” Ms. Lynch said at an Aspen Institute conference in Colorado. “My meeting on the plane with former President Clinton could give them another reason to have questions and concerns.”

Though she insisted the 30-minute conversation was a purely social encounter, Ms. Lynch said, “I certainly wouldn’t do it again.”

The attorney general’s response did little to quell a political tempest in Washington, with some Republicans calling for her to recuse herself from the case — a step she said she was not going to take. Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, said the meeting had “opened up a Pandora’s box.” He cast doubt on whether it was entirely social, citing it as an example of how “the special interests are controlling your government.”

For Democrats, already anxious about the political impact of the email investigation, the incident revived fears that Mr. Clinton could become a rogue actor in a campaign that has so far operated more smoothly than Mrs. Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008.

Mr. Clinton, who was on a seven-state fund-raising swing for his wife, strode across the tarmac at the airport in Phoenix to greet Ms. Lynch after her plane landed there on Monday night. The attorney general joked that she should have acted more swiftly to keep him from boarding. Asked by a journalist to name one thing she wished her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., had told her about her job, she replied, “Where the lock on the plane door was.”

Still, Ms. Lynch said the episode was personally distressing because it stained the reputation of the Justice Department. “The fact that the meeting that I had is now casting a shadow over how people are going to view that work is something that I take seriously, and deeply and painfully,” she said.

Even Ms. Lynch’s explanation of how she planned to distance herself from the case — without recusing herself — required further clarification. “The case will be resolved by the team that’s been working on it from the beginning,” she said in Aspen. But a Justice Department spokeswoman, Melanie Newman, noted afterward that even if Ms. Lynch accepted the recommendation of her staff, she would be the one making the decision.

“She’s the head of the department,” Ms. Newman said, “and with that comes ultimate responsibility for any decision.”

The White House declined to comment on Ms. Lynch’s decision. President Obama “believes that this matter should be handled without regard to politics,” the press secretary, Josh Earnest, said.

The F.B.I. is investigating whether Mrs. Clinton, her aides or anyone else broke the law by setting up a private email server for her to use as secretary of state. Internal investigators have concluded that the server was used to send classified information. For the Justice Department, the central question is whether the conduct met the legal standard for the crime of mishandling classified information.

Ms. Lynch, whom Mr. Clinton appointed to be a United States attorney in 1999, said that the meeting with the former president was unplanned and largely social, and did not touch on the email investigation.

“He said hello and we basically said hello, and congratulated him on his grandchildren, as people do,” said Ms. Lynch, who was traveling with her husband. “That led to a conversation about those grandchildren.”

For Mr. Clinton, who travels frequently by private jet, such airport socializing is common. Last month, he ran into Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, after speaking at the funeral of Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Ky. The two chatted before their planes took off. He has also greeted Representative Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California, on the tarmac. And in Mobile, Ala., he chatted with Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who has called for Mrs. Clinton’s imprisonment.

This meeting, however, created a particularly awkward situation for Ms. Lynch, a veteran prosecutor who was nominated from outside Washington’s political circles. During her confirmation, her allies sought to contrast her with her predecessor, Mr. Holder, an outspoken liberal voice who clashed frequently with Republicans who accused him of politicizing the office.

Ms. Lynch’s reassurance that she will not overrule her investigators is significant. When the F.B.I. sought to bring felony charges against David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director, for mishandling classified information and lying about it, Mr. Holder stepped in and reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. That decision opened a deep — and public — rift.

Two other political appointees will review the findings of the email investigation before a final decision is made: John P. Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. But both have also pledged to follow the recommendations of the career prosecutors and the F.B.I., Ms. Newman said.

The F.B.I. is expected to make a recommendation to the Justice Department in the coming weeks, though agents have yet to interview Mrs. Clinton. While some legal experts said they believed that criminal indictments in the case were unlikely, the investigation continues to cast a shadow over Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Beyond the day-to-day workings of the Justice Department, there is precedent for relying on career officials to make politically charged decisions. When the Justice Department was considering whether to recommend sanctions against former Bush administration lawyers who approved waterboarding, Mr. Holder relied on his most senior career prosecutor to make the decision. No sanctions were recommended.

For Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, the incident in Phoenix resurrected questions about how the campaign would rein in her irrepressible husband.

With approval ratings among Democrats of over 60 percent, Mr. Clinton is one of his wife’s most potent surrogates. He has traversed the country with a breakneck schedule, campaigning and raising money for Mrs. Clinton, traveling with a bare-bones staff and security detail.

Mr. Clinton and his chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, are in frequent contact with John D. Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign, and Robby Mook, the campaign manager. He often listens in on campaign conference calls from the family’s home in Chappaqua, N.Y. But his unpredictable and sociable nature can also cause problems for his wife’s candidacy.

David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said on Twitter that he took Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lynch “at their word” that they had not discussed the investigation, but added that it was “foolish to create such optics.”

Follow Mark Landler and Matt Apuzzo on Twitter.

Mark Landler and Matt Apuzzo reported from Washington, and Amy Chozick from New York. Chad Abraham contributed reporting from Aspen, Colo.

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