Former President Bill Clinton told investigators that he didn’t think the investigation into wife Hillary Clinton’s emails “amounted to much, frankly” and thus found nothing wrong with initiating an impromptu meeting with the attorney general on a Phoenix airport tarmac.
Mr. Clinton testified to investigators that he believed he knew the “truth of that whole thing.” He said he did not want to snub then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch when he walked the 30 yards from his private jet to hers. He told her she was doing a great job and that she was his favorite Cabinet secretary.
The airport scene — at times chaotic as a Lynch aide tried to break up the meeting but got stopped by security and as Mr. Clinton kept talking longer than Mrs. Lynch wanted — is captured in Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s 500-plus-page report on the Clinton email saga.
The June 27, 2016, tarmac episode is one of the moments most talked about. Some Republicans said the two-term president, by his mere presence, tried to influence the criminal investigation as Mrs. Clinton was running for president.
Mr. Clinton described his wife to Mrs. Lynch as “a happy grandmother and an ardent one and that we were very lucky because our daughter and her husband and our grandchildren live in New York, so they are about an hour from us in a decent traffic day.”
At the time of the meeting, Mrs. Clinton’s interview with the FBI was less than a week away.
An unidentified aide to Ms. Lynch didn’t see the session as advisable. She said she was sitting in a plane-side van and would have stopped the meeting had she witnessed Mr. Clinton approach. She described her response as “shocked” and she “just felt completely … blindsided” once he got onto the plane.
“If I had knowledge, I would not have been in that van. I would’ve … stayed on the plane and got everybody off. … No heads-up or anything,” she said.
Another aide tried to reboard the plane to break up the meeting, but the chief of Ms. Lynch’s security detail would not let her pass.
Ms. Lynch said the tete-a-tete with Mr. Clinton, as his wife was being investigated by her Justice Department, went “on and on” for 20 minutes.
“It was just too long a conversation to have had,” she said.
She told investigators that she thought the meeting would be no more than a greeting. But Mr. Clinton made himself at home and regaled her and her husband in small talk, she told the Justice Department investigators.
“At some point, after two or three minutes, President Clinton turned around,” she said. “I had my tote bags on the bench seat of the plane, because I had put them there when he came on board. I had been holding them. I put them down. He picked up my tote bags and moved them, and then he sat down. So he sat down, and my husband and I were still standing in front of him having the discussion. And … he sort of sat heavily, and … I didn’t know … how he felt, so I can’t say one way or the other.”
She added, “And I remember at that point saying, ‘Well, you know, thank you very much’ kind of thing, and he sort of continued chatting … made a comment about his travels he was headed on. And I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to get going to the hotel.’”
But Mr. Clinton kept talking, she said, changing the topic to coal policies in West Virginia.
Mr. Clinton said his motive was innocent.
“I just wanted to say hello to her, and I thought it would look really crazy if we were living in [a] world [where] I couldn’t shake hands with the Attorney General you know when she was right there,” he said, according to the Horowitz report.
The inspector general’s inquiry focused on how the FBI investigated and exonerated Mrs. Clinton before the Nov. 8 election. As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton used an unsecured, at-home server to conduct government business. She stored a number of emails that contained highly classified material.
Then-FBI Director James B. Comey unilaterally exonerated Mrs. Clinton without consulting with Justice attorneys, a move that Mr. Horowitz called “insubordination.” Mr. Comey called Mrs. Clinton’s private email process “extremely careless” but said it did not reach the level of criminality.
The tarmac meeting happened this way.
Mr. Clinton’s private plane was waiting for takeoff after he spent several days campaigning and playing golf in Phoenix’s blistering summer heat. He said he did not know Ms. Lynch was arriving in Phoenix.
The attorney general was set to disembark at about 7 p.m. to speak at a police gathering.
He learned that Ms. Lynch’s plane sat yards away, and he decided to say hello. Ms. Lynch, her staff having exited to her motorcade, greeted him at the door and invited him on board to “talk about our grandkids.”
“Well what I didn’t want to do is to look like I was having some big huddle-up session with her you know. … Because it was a paranoid time,” Mr. Clinton told the inspector general. “I knew what I believed to be the truth of that whole thing. It was after all my server and the FBI knew it was there and the Secret Service approved it coming in and she just used what was mine.”
The inspector general said both Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lynch denied that they spoke about the email investigation, the election or future jobs.
Asked about press criticism, Mr. Clinton said, “the mainstream media wasn’t as bad on that as they were on a lot of things. … 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. I’ve got an idea, I’ll do all these things they accuse me of doing in broad daylight in an airport in Phoenix when the whole world can see it in front of an Air Force One crew and I believe one of her security guards. It was an interesting proposition, but no, we did not.”
Melanie Newman, Ms. Lynch’s director of public affairs, said her boss was crestfallen over having made a “high stakes mistake.”
Ms. 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,” Ms. Newman told the inspector general.
“But also, she’s like the most polite, Southern person alive. I don’t know in what circumstances she would have said no, or what would have happened if she had said no,” Ms. Newman said. “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.”
The tarmac embarrassment prompted the Justice Department to better insulate Ms. Lynch. From then on, the senior staff member on a Lynch trip was required to stay on the plane with the attorney general and “escort her at other times,” the report said.