By Eric Felten
What happened when Bill Clinton met then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the west side of Phoenix Sky Harbor airport between 7 and 8 PM on June 27, 2016? Just days before Hillary Rodham Clinton was to be interviewed by the FBI about her mishandling of classified emails, the former president intercepted the AG on her plane. Was it just a “casual” and “unscheduled” encounter, as the head spokesperson for the Department of Justice maintained? Or was the former president stalking Lynch to urge her to go easy on his wife?
We have a new window on what may have gone on inside Lynch’s FBI jet after it landed — the story as told by the former attorney general to lawmakers and staff of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Her account could easily be seen as self-serving, but it was given under penalty of perjury.
Lynch was questioned behind closed doors on Dec. 19, 2018 in the Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2131. The interview has remained private; no transcript of it has been released. But RealClearInvestigations has obtained a copy. In it, Lynch describes an encounter with Bill Clinton that is both perplexing and preposterous, a story that defies innocent explanation.
An Awkward Encounter
The day after the tarmac meeting, Lynch held a press conference to talk about local police policies. Christopher Sign, the morning anchor for the ABC affiliate in Phoenix, asked her what she had been talking with Bill Clinton about on her jet the evening before. She said it was just pleasantries: “Our conversation was a great deal about his grandchildren,” she said to reporters. They also talked about their travels, golf, former Attorney General Janet Reno and West Virginia. “It was primarily social,” Lynch said, assuring everyone “there was no discussion of any matter pending for the [Justice] department or any matter pending for any other body.”
Lynch told much the same story to lawmakers behind closed doors. It also tracked closely with the way she described the meeting to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. But there is a significant difference between the description of the meeting Lynch shared with the reporters and the version Lynch presented on Capitol Hill. She told the press their meeting had been a pleasant happenstance; by contrast, the meeting she described to lawmakers was a forced and awkward encounter in which Bill Clinton was strangely eager to meet with her, so eager that he made it up the stairs and onto her plane without being invited. And once aboard, he simply could not be persuaded to leave, chatting and chatting and chatting, strangely oblivious to Lynch’s repeated hints he had overstayed his welcome.
According to the way the airport tarmac meeting is described by those trying to downplay the get-together, Lynch and Clinton somehow crossed paths coming to and from Phoenix on their private planes. Typical was a “person familiar with the meeting” who tried to explain it to the press like this: “The former president, who was departing the airport on a private jet, noticed Lynch’s plane had arrived and decided to go over and say hello.” The suggestion was that it was a chance meeting. It was anything but.
Loretta Lynch described to the joint House committees landing on a hot evening in Phoenix, where the next day she would be visiting the local police department. She explained there was a standard protocol for getting everyone off the plane: They would always deplane in a series, “security detail first, my staff [next], and then I would leave and go immediately to the car.” Security exited, then the staff, all as per normal. But before Lynch and her husband, Stephen Hargrove, who was traveling with her, could get out of the plane there was an interruption of the standard procedure.
“As we walked to the door, the head of my security detail came to me and said: ‘Ma’am, I’ve been informed … that former President Clinton is also at the airfield and would like to say hello.’” According to Lynch’s testimony, she didn’t have the opportunity to think about whether that was a good idea: Her head of security had barely finished talking and “former President Clinton was standing in the doorway of the plane.” He proceeded to work the room (or perhaps we should say the fuselage). After a cursory hello to Lynch and her husband, Clinton greeted her “security detail officer, shook his hand, and then stepped toward the back of the plane” where there “were two members of the flight crew.” Clinton lavished them with attention. According to the former AG’s congressional interview, Clinton “said hello to them, shook their hand, spent about five minutes talking with both of those two individuals.”
At last the former president came back up front where Lynch “sort of reintroduced him to my husband.” Clinton “spoke with him for several minutes, asked about our trip, asked about our flight,” and otherwise made anodyne small talk such as “happy to meet you, haven’t met you before.”
“There had been press that they had a new grandchild,” Lynch recalled of the Clintons. “I said: Congratulations on your new grandchild. And we were standing up, and he turned and said, thank you very much, and started talking about that. Asked my husband if we had children. They began talking about children and kids.”
‘A Little Under 10 Minutes’
Lynch said that between herself and her husband, they spoke with Clinton “maybe eight or nine minutes, a little under 10 minutes.” They had said a lot of nothing and yet, according to Lynch, it was “the only real conversation I’ve ever had with him.” Add the time the former president spent schmoozing the staff and he was on the plane for “probably about 20 minutes.”
But how are you and the kids? — even if repeated — isn’t quite enough to fill 10 minutes of tarmac time. What else, Lynch was asked on Capitol Hill, did you talk about? “Well, he asked what brought me to Phoenix,” she said. “He asked how my travels were, and I mentioned looking forward to seeing the police department.” Clinton “also asked had I been traveling a lot. I mentioned that I had just gotten back from China but had cut that trip short to come back and go down to Florida because of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.” They talked about the failing health of Janet Reno, who would die the day before Election Day. “And that was probably the extent, the largest part of my conversation with him.”
Strange. One can understand that Lynch needs to maintain that there was no conversation about Hillary’s email predicament — she’s repeated that enough times that there’s no going back. But if they didn’t have that to talk about, they didn’t have much else to say to one another. It would be one thing if theirs had been a random run-in. But do ex-presidents really just appear at the perfect time to talk to the perfect person who is perfectly positioned to make an imperfect situation go away? If the talk was really about nothing, why was Bill Clinton so eager to have it? So eager that he was at the airport in time to catch Lynch before she got off her plane; so eager that ascending the stairs to the airplane doorway, he had all but pushed past Lynch’s head of security. Strange indeed.
The small talk exhausted, according to Lynch, she tried to make a gracious exit and things got weirder still.
“And at one point, I said: Well, you know, thank you very much. It’s lovely seeing you. We have to move on.” And Bill Clinton … kept talking. “He made a comment about where he was headed to next and started talking about his next location. He finished that anecdote. I don’t recall what it was about.
“And I, again, said: Well, you know, thank you very much. It’s been nice seeing you. You know, we have to move on,” Lynch told lawmakers. And presented with those unmistakable, blunt cues, what did the man so famous for his mesmerizing social skills do? “He continued chatting. He continued talking.”
Clinton chatted about what he was doing in Phoenix. “Was he doing anything campaign-related that was part of that discussion?” Judiciary Committee majority staffer Zach Somers asked Lynch. “He didn’t share that with me,” she said. “He said he had been playing golf.”
So let’s get this straight. Hillary Clinton is in the midst of a campaign for president and facing the harrowing prospect (or at least a prospect that would be harrowing for the less-connected) of an FBI interview to determine whether she was to be criminally prosecuted. And her husband — the rarest of tacticians who had mastered both those challenges — is off…golfing? And on a 110-degree summer day in Arizona when few are to be found out on the scorched greens?
Christopher Sign, the TV anchor who broke the tarmac story in Phoenix, doesn’t buy the golfing assertion: “To this day I have never found a single person who claims or corroborates any story that Bill Clinton played golf on this particular trip,” Sign tells RealClearInvestigations. “I feel strongly the former president did not play golf on this visit.” Justice IG Horowitz reported that during his day in Phoenix Bill Clinton attended several campaign fundraisers.
Back in the plane, Loretta Lynch was still stuck with a former president who wouldn’t stop talking. “I said that we had to move on,” Lynch recalled. Clinton was unmoved by her plea to wrap it up: He “said he was moving on someplace as well. And I don’t recall if he was going to West Virginia, but somehow he ended up talking about West Virginia. And he had sort of an anecdote about West Virginia coal mining that was sort of a historical issue. It wasn’t something that I was familiar with.”
The way Lynch tells it, you can see her struggling to keep her eyelids open. Bravely she made another escape attempt: “And we were talking about, again, moving on,” Lynch testified. Finally someone came to her rescue: “And at one point a staffer of mine came on the plane to get me. And at that point the president was — Mr. Clinton was then talking about Brexit. He was saying that either he had been reading an article about Brexit, and he made a reference — he quoted something that had been in The Times — The New York Times, I should say — about Brexit when my staffer was stepping on to the plane.”
Is Lynch’s story believable? Maybe. But if it’s true, then Bill Clinton’s small talk was such excruciating torture it might be only an exaggeration to say it could be used to drill in on the question “Is it safe?” Lynch’s story may be improbable but its purpose may be less to persuade than to make her sympathetic — a victim, even.
Lynch was asked whether at some point the thought occurred to her, “Maybe I shouldn’t have this conversation”?
“As we — as his conversation continued, I just felt that the conversation was continuing for too long,” Lynch replied. “And I thought that not only did we need to move on, he didn’t seem to have any particular purpose in talking to me, you know, there was nothing specific he seemed to want to say. And after you exchange pleasantries, really people typically go on about their days, or about their evenings in this case.”
It ‘Went On Too Long’
If Bill Clinton wasn’t behaving the way people typically behave, what was he up to?
It wasn’t just that “the conversation went on too long,” Lynch told Congress; she had a terrible realization: “As we were leaving I felt that it was — it certainly was going to raise a potential issue in the appearance of how the case was being handled.”
How much of an issue? James Comey was FBI director at the time of the tarmac meeting. Much later — just two days before Lynch’s closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill — Comey gave his own private congressional interview. He claimed to have been so troubled by the Lynch/Clinton get-together that he considered calling for a special counsel to investigate. But, he decided a special counsel wasn’t necessary. Which left him in the position to usurp from Lynch, with his July 5, 2021 press conference, the decision of whether or not to prosecute Hillary.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Lynch was not lying to Congress. If so, it seems to have dawned on her rather late that Clinton had compromised her, had put her in a jam. What if that’s exactly what he set out to do? It would explain the ex-president’s otherwise inexplicable behavior — how one of the great glad-handers of all time leapt onto a plane in order to bore everyone to death. He was anything but clueless; he was demonstrating to the attorney general that he could cause her real trouble, and could do so with cheerful impunity. He didn’t have to make heavy-handed threats or otherwise put himself at risk of an obstruction of justice charge. No, all he had to do was darken the airplane doorway and prattle on with seeming obliviousness about grandkids, travel plans, coal mining, golf, and Brexit.
In the wake of that bravura performance, Lynch had to convene working groups to determine whether she needed to recuse herself from the Hillary probe. She would untimately decide against recusal, but said she would accept the decision of career staff and the FBI on whether to prosecute.
What a mess. And what a splendidly innocent way of causing mayhem and conveying menace. Give Bill Clinton his due — the man is no amateur.