OPIOID SERIES:

Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton creates firestorm for email case

The private meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWith Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker When Barbara Bush praised Bill Clinton, and Clinton praised the man she loved Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska MORE has created a political firestorm, fueling criticism of the Justice Department’s investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report DNC sues Russia, Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over alleged election interference MORE’s private email server.

The disclosure of the 30-minute meeting — which was described as an unplanned social visit on an airport tarmac in Phoenix — has stirred rampant speculation about what might have been discussed by the former president and the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIG investigating Comey memos over classified information: report Overnight Defense: Congress poised for busy week on nominations, defense bill | Trump to deliver Naval Academy commencement speech | Trump administration appeals decision to block suspected combatant's transfer Top Pruitt aid requested backdate to resignation letter: report MORE, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, called the “sneak” meeting, which took place Monday night, “one of the big stories of this week, of this month, of this year.” 

“I’ve been talking about the rigged system, how it’s rigged,” he said. “And you know, this is terrible, and nobody can understand why nothing’s happened.” 

Some Democrats also criticized the meeting. David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Obama, tweeted that while he took Lynch and Clinton "at their word" that the email investigation didn't come up in their conversation, it was "foolish to create such optics" by meeting.

"I do agree with you that it doesn't send the right signal," Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsOvernight Defense: Congress poised for busy week on nominations, defense bill | Trump to deliver Naval Academy commencement speech | Trump administration appeals decision to block suspected combatant's transfer Heitkamp becomes first Dem to back Pompeo for secretary of State The rule-of-law party must unite around Mueller MORE (D-Del.) said Thursday on CNN's "New Day." Coons said he considers Lynch to be an "independent attorney general" and has "generally shown excellent judgment" in her role.

Still, Coons said Lynch should have held off on seeing Bill Clinton at all until after the election. "I don't think it sends the right signal. I think she should have steered clear even of a brief, casual, social meeting with the former president," Coons said.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynRepublicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller Democrats mull audacious play to block Pompeo Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes MORE (R-Texas), the Senate majority whip who has previously pushed for a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton’s emails, tweeted that Lynch "must avoid even the appearance of conflict."

The controversy is creating a new headache for Clinton's presidential campaign, which has for months been dogged by questions about the FBI’s investigation into her private server. That review, focused on the handling of classified information, is said to be in its final stages. 

The server investigation is being handled by a number of FBI investigators and federal prosecutors. But a case this high profile has surely drawn in Lynch’s personal oversight, former officials have said. 

Bill Clinton, who was visiting the Phoenix area, heard Lynch would be arriving at the Sky Harbor airport as part of her national tour promoting community policing and waited for her arrival before boarding her plane, according to ABC15, which first reported the meeting. 

Lynch confirmed at a news conference Tuesday in Phoenix that she and her husband had spoken with the former president.

"Our conversation was a great deal about his grandchildren. It was primarily social and about our travels; he mentioned golf he played in Phoenix," Lynch said Tuesday afternoon at the Phoenix Police Department.

A law enforcement official familiar with the matter told CNN that Lynch's FBI security detail did not stop Clinton when he moved to initiate the extended conversation. The official said that Lynch was surprised to see Clinton walking onto her plane, adding that no official Justice Department business was conducted.

Lynch on Wednesday insisted that the meeting would not in any way affect the federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of State.

“It’s being handled by career investigators and career agents, who always follow facts and the law, and do the same thorough and independent examination in this matter that they’ve done in all,” she said Wednesday in Los Angeles, according to ABC News. “So that’s how that’ll be handed.”

The White House said Lynch and President Obama are committed to conducting a fair investigation.

“I think the bottom line is simply that both the president and the attorney general understand how important it is for the Department of Justice to conduct investigations that are free of political interference,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. 

He refused to second-guess her decision to speak privately with Clinton, saying he took Lynch at her word that the two did not discuss the FBI’s review. 

“She was asked a direct question about it and she answered it,” he said. 

Top Democrats on Capitol Hill came to Lynch’s defense. Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination The Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism Dems to party: Go on offense with Trump’s alleged affairs MORE (Nev.) said Lynch's ethics are "the best." Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThrowing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism House Republicans push Mulvaney, Trump to rescind Gateway funds Congress should build on the momentum from spending bill MORE (N.Y.), who is expected to be the next Senate Democratic leader, called Lynch "an honorable person."

"She has said nothing was discussed related to the investigation, so you have two choices: to say this didn't matter or she's lying. I think it didn't matter. I don't think she's lying." 

— Jordan Fabian, Julian Hattem and Jordain Carney contributed.