Former President Bill Clinton had a strange reason for approaching then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix, Arizona, airport tarmac in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign. It was a time when Clinton’s wife and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was under investigation by the FBI for her use of a private email server while secretary of state, according to revelations in a Department of Justice Inspector General’s report released on Thursday.
The impromptu meeting between Clinton and Lynch, which was initiated by Clinton and left Lynch highly uncomfortable, according to the IG report, set in motion a chain of events that may have led to the November election victory by Donald Trump — although not intentionally — according to the IG report. In part because of the tarmac meeting, FBI Director James Comey believed that Lynch had the appearance of a conflict and therefore took it upon himself to announce the results of the Clinton email investigation in a July 5, 2016, public statement, about a week after the Clinton-Lynch encounter.
Comey continued to act in a manner that the IG’s report condemned as “extraordinary and insubordinate,” as CNN reported, culminating in the October 28 letter from Comey to congress announcing that the FBI would reopen the Clinton email investigation — a letter that came after the final presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and just a week before the election itself.
Why did Clinton approach Lynch that day in Phoenix? According to what Clinton told Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the reason was bizarre in its triviality; Clinton wanted to shake hands with her.
“I don’t want her to think I’m afraid to shake hands with her because she’s the Attorney General,” Clinton said, as quoted by Talking Points Memo.
While the IG report determined that there was “no evidence” Clinton and Lynch talked about the investigation into Hillary Clinton, Horowitz did find that the meeting created an “appearance problem,” and failing to recognize that problem and “take action to cut the visit short” constituted an “error in judgment” on Lynch’s part.
Instead, Lynch simply sat there feeling increasingly “devastated” as Clinton “went on and on,” Lynch told the Inspector General, according to the report. Lynch’s staff was also stunned by Clinton’s surprise visit, exiting his own private plane which was positioned on the tarmac just yards away from Lynch’s plane.
“The Deputy Chief of Staff said that they quickly realized that the meeting was problematic, because Clinton was not just the former president but was also the husband of someone who was under investigation,” the report says. “The Deputy Chief of Staff said that she felt ‘shocked,’ and that they all ‘just felt completely… blindsided.’ The Senior Counselor said that they immediately were aware that the meeting was ill-advised and that the ‘optics were not great.'”
Partly as a result of the tarmac meeting, Comey worried that the public would experience “corrosive doubt” about whether the investigation into Clinton was conducted fairly and without bias, the report said. Comey was so consumed with this worry that he simply cut Lynch, his direct boss, out of the loop and delivered the July 5 public statement, as well as sending the October 28 letter, without consulting her.
As the New York Times reported, the IG report found no evidence of political bias in Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. But according to an analysis by election polling expert Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight, “Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on October 28.”