My Aspen Ideas Festival interview of Attorney General Loretta Lynch had been on the books for weeks.
She was supposed to give a speech on criminal-justice reform, followed by a sit-down with me about the issue and other topics. A chance encounter with former president Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac in Phoenix last month upended everything.
That his wife’s use of a private email server is at the center of an FBI investigation made the tarmac tete-a-tete as ill-advised as it was unavoidable by Lynch.
Lynch has a reputation for integrity and sound judgment. She knows what happened in Phoenix was and remains a disaster. But she didn’t go into a defensive crouch. She has been incredibly transparent.
Rather than swat away questions, Lynch forthrightly answered them at news conferences last week in Phoenix and Los Angeles. And in Aspen, she scrapped her speech in favor of a hit-the-ground-running conversation. At no point did Justice Department officials try to put conditions or limitations on what we would talk about. So, I asked Lynch the only question anyone wanted asked and answered: What on earth were you thinking?
“Well, I think that’s the question of the day, isn’t it?,” Lynch responded. After much prodding, Lynch did say, “I certainly wouldn’t do it again,” when I asked her if she “regretted not telling the former president of the United States to leave” her plane. She would later earn laughter and applause when she said the one thing she wished her predecessor, Eric Holder, had told her was “Where the lock on the plane door was.”
It took prodding to get those expressions of regret from Lynch because she persisted in pivoting away from the initial question.
That isn’t as telling as what she was pivoting to: a thorough explanation of a usually opaque process and a defense of the independence and professionalism of the career investigators and prosecutors guiding the email probe. Lynch went so far as to say that the cloud the Clinton encounter cast over her department is “something I take seriously and deeply and painfully” because “the integrity of the Department of Justice is important.”
“I can certainly say this matter is going to be handled like any other as it has always been. It’s going to be resolved like any other, as it was always going to be,” Lynch said. “I’ve always said that this matter will be handled by the career people who are independent. They live from administration to administration. Their role is to follow the facts and follow the law and make a determination as to what happened and what those next steps should be.”
During a 20-minute, on-the-record interview after the formal event, Lynch added, “This team is dedicated and professional. So I can’t imagine a circumstance in which I would not be accepting their recommendations.”
One Aspen attendee told me she thought Lynch was shifting responsibility for the probe’s resolution to “bureaucrats” and “paper pushers.” When I put that concern to Lynch during that sit-down, she pushed back hard.
“People have different perceptions of government employees writ large [in] specific agencies, [the] Department of Justice,” Lynch said. “But that’s an unfortunate view. It’s an inaccurate view. And it’s a view of the career lawyers and agents that I firmly reject.”
Lynch’s very public defense of the process and the career officials who shepherd it could be a bit of internal message-sending on her part.
When former CIA chief and army general David Petraeus was allowed to plead guilty in April to a misdemeanor instead of a felony for passing classified information to his mistress, The New York Times reported that “ FBI officials were particularly angry over what they viewed as Mr. Holder’s not backing up their agents and allowing Mr. Petraeus to get away with lying to them.”
Even without that office politics hanging overhead, I still believe Lynch is and has been trying to do the right thing in the Clinton email probe.
When you listen to her talk about the conversation with Clinton, it is pretty clear to me that the person doing most of the talking in that airplane social call was the man who nominated her to U.S. attorney for the Eastern District back in 1999 and who has a reputation for such visits.
More importantly, when the eyes of the world were on her in Aspen, Lynch didn’t flinch or bristle at being asked follow-up after follow-up. Nor did she when I asked for further clarification in our post-event interview.
That Lynch has been incredibly transparent about this entire matter helps her overall goal of repairing and protecting the integrity of the department she leads.