Lynch pressured to recuse herself after Clinton tarmac meeting

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Pressure is intensifying for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to hand off oversight of the federal investigation connected to Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Calls for Lynch to step aside — which had already been simmering for months — appeared primed to boil over Thursday following the attorney general’s unscheduled, private meeting with Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.

{mosads}“Considering the ongoing criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton, this secret meeting between the Attorney General and Bill Clinton shows an astounding lack of judgment by Loretta Lynch,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a statement on Thursday calling for Lynch to recuse herself.

“Given the culture of unaccountability in the Obama Administration, it is unlikely that Attorney General Lynch will heed the growing calls for her resignation,” he said. “But at a minimum, Lynch should immediately recuse herself from the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s unlawful activities, and appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case, so the American people can know the truth about this secret meeting and finally rest assured the criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton is being conducted fully and impartially, without even the appearance of corruption.”

A Department of Justice (DOJ) official told The New York Times that Lynch will announce Friday plans to accept whatever recommendation career prosecutors and the FBI make regarding charges related to the server. The department had allegedly been moving toward that arrangement for months, but Lynch’s sit-down with the former president apparently sealed the deal.

The 30-minute meeting on the tarmac at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport aroused further suspicion about the political pressures weighing on the DOJ.

While Lynch said the meeting was purely social, critics are using it as evidence of bias. Fellow Democrats such as Sen. Chris Coons (Del.) questioned Lynch’s judgment, as did outside observers.

“I’d go as far as to say [it was] a bonehead thing to do,” said Matthew Orwig, a former U.S. attorney now at Jones Day in Texas. 

“I don’t think that it indicates that there’s a lack of ethical compliance there,” he added. “However, it’s fair for people to question it, and it’s fair for people to want to ask for more details.”

The federal investigation connected to Clinton, which was launched by inspector general referrals last July, is examining whether Clinton’s use of a private email address and server while she led the State Department amounted to criminal mishandling of classified information. The Justice Department has remained tight-lipped about the probe, but the protracted length suggests that investigators and prosecutors are taking it seriously.  

Lynch, who would be involved with overseeing prosecutorial decisions, has maintained that the inquiry is free of political meddling and being handled by career professionals.  

A law enforcement official familiar with the matter told CNN that Lynch was surprised by Bill Clinton’s decision to walk onto her plane on Monday.

Lynch has insisted that the conversation between herself, her husband and Clinton stuck purely to pleasantries, such as Clinton’s grandchildren, golf and mutual acquaintances.

“There was no discussion of Benghazi, no discussion of the State Department emails,” Lynch said on Tuesday in Phoenix.

The former president — not Lynch — ought to bear most of the blame for the unseemly incident, said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in legal ethics.

“Clinton’s conduct placed Lynch in a difficult position. She could hardly decline to talk to the former president, much as she would have wished to avoid it,” Gillers wrote in an email to The Hill. “Basically, she was cornered.”

“Clinton’s private audience created the appearance of impropriety and feeds the suspicion of special treatment,” he added. “It disserves the nation and Mrs. Clinton. The public should not have to wonder what the two discussed.”

To Republicans, the episode reeked of impropriety and proved Lynch is unfit to oversee the Hillary Clinton email probe, which many thought would have been resolved months ago.

John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, has repeatedly called for Lynch to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the Clinton investigation. On Thursday, he reiterated the demand.

The Monday meeting between Lynch and the former president “does nothing to instill confidence in the American people that her department can fully and fairly conduct this investigation,” he said in a statement. “And that’s why a special counsel is needed now more than ever.”

A decade ago, congressional Democrats demanded that then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recuse himself from the case against GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, due to ties between Abramoff and the George W. Bush administration.

But even that incident isn’t a fair analogy to the case involving Clinton, watchers said, given the immense stakes involving the potential next president.

“It never gets more politicized than this,” said Orwig, who was generally ambivalent about a special prosecutor.

In a filing on Thursday, Judicial Watch — the conservative legal organization involved in multiple open records lawsuits against the State Department over Clinton’s email setup — filed a request asking the Justice Department’s inspector general to review the meeting.

“This incident undermines the public’s faith in the fair administration of justice,” the group claimed, and “creates the broad public impression that ‘the fix is in.’”

Donald Trump, Clinton’s likely Republican opponent in the general election race, described the meeting as a “sneak” and evidence of the “rigged system” against him.

“I think it’s … one of the big stories of this week, of this month, of this year,” Trump said in an interview on the Mike Gallagher radio show.

The White House has dismissed allegations of political meddling. 

But Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware, said on CNN’s “New Day” that the private meeting “doesn’t send the right signal.” 

“I think she should have steered clear even of a brief, casual, social meeting with the former president,” he said.

On Wednesday, following initial news reports about the meeting, critics rallied to a petition claiming Lynch “no longer has the ability to remain neutral” in the Clinton case and should hand the reins off to a special prosecutor.

The meeting had the appearance of an unforced error by the Justice Department, as the episode fed into a politically damaging narrative that Clinton is untrustworthy and, in the words of Trump, “crooked.”

It’s the second time just this month that the department has been forced onto its back foot.

Earlier this month, the FBI was castigated for its decision to redact the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the transcript of the 911 call made by Orlando, Fla., gunman Omar Mateen. The move, which was quickly reversed, was harshly criticized by Republicans, who accused the Obama administration of bowing to political correctness at the expense of national security. 
During a hearing in a Senate Judiciary subcommittee this week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pointed to the redactions as the latest example of “purging” references to “to radical Islamic terrorism, to pretend that the threat does not exist.”

Some legal experts said the incident could overshadow the general respect for Lynch and FBI Director James Comey.

“If this becomes some sort of a big blowup political discussion and what have you, then maybe Loretta would think ‘Jeez, I’m sorry I ever got on that airplane,’” said Richard Rossman, a retired federal prosecutor and Justice Department official.  

“Though I’m just not so sure you can say ‘You can’t have any discussions with anybody these days,’” he added. “I hope the world hasn’t become that way.”

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