clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch's meeting scandal is every Clinton scandal in miniature

Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images and Bobby Bank/WireImage
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Monday night, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton were both at the Phoenix airport, waiting on the tarmac. Lynch said that Clinton then walked to her plane, uninvited, to say hi. "He did come over and say hello," she said at a news conference on Wednesday, "and speak to my husband and myself, and talk about his grandchildren and his travels and things like that."

The whole incident might be banal were it not for the fact that the FBI — under Lynch’s jurisdiction — is currently investigating the email practices of Clinton’s wife, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and it’s still theoretically possible that could result in Clinton being indicted. And even though Lynch and others present for the conversation say the two didn’t discuss any Department of Justice cases, and certainly not the Clinton emails case, that’s doing nothing to calm criticism from Republicans.

Donald Trump has seized on the incident as an example of the Clintons’ fundamental corruption. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, has called for Lynch to appoint a special counsel to run the investigation and remove herself from the process. Even Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) has said the meeting sent "the wrong signal" (he later dialed back his criticisms).

And now Lynch herself has felt the need to announce that she will accept whatever recommendations career prosecutors make as to whether to bring charges related to Clinton's emails. "The recommendations will be reviewed by career supervisors in the Department of Justice and in the FBI, and by the FBI director, and then as is the common process, they present it to me and I fully expect to accept their recommendations," she said at an event in Aspen. As for the meeting with Bill Clinton, Lynch said, "I certainly wouldn't do it again."

While the details are new, the overall structure of the scandal mirrors that of many Clinton imbroglios of years past: Travelgate, Troopergate, Whitewater, and so on. The media and conservative critics seized on these as evidence that the Clintons are willing to do anything to help themselves and their friends, and will interfere with investigations if necessary.

But to the Clintons and their defenders, they’re tempests in teapots, proof that the media will try to construe even the most meaningless incidents as evidence of the Clintons’ perfidy. That belief, in turn, seems to inspire a cavalier attitude about actions that lead to such tempests, fueling the cycle all over again.

What exactly is the Department of Justice still investigating?

FBI Director James Comey Delivers Keynote Address On Cyber Security At Georgetown University
FBI Director James Comey.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since August, the FBI has been looking into the server issue following a referral from the inspectors general of the State Department and intelligence community.

As of late May, the investigation appeared to be wrapping up, and as of this writing it does not appear likely Clinton will be charged with anything. For one thing, any criminal violation would require Clinton to have knowingly dealt with classified information on her private, unsecured email server. If she knew that was what she was doing, she could potentially be charged with unlawfully removing and retaining classified information, the same charge for which former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus was convicted.

But as Anne Tompkins, the US attorney who prosecuted Petraeus, has noted, Petraeus was recorded on tape saying he knew that some of the material in his journals, which he made available to his biographer Paula Broadwell, was classified. There would need to be similar evidence proving that Clinton knew the emails she was storing on a private server contained classified information.

She has continually insisted the contrary, that any classified material in the emails was either classified after the fact or she did not realize it was classified. Barring definitive proof that her statements in this regard are wrong, it would be hard to mount a criminal case.

To the Clintons and their allies, this makes the Lynch scandal all the more ludicrous. If Hillary were already basically in the clear, and odds of a prosecution were vanishingly low, why would Bill go out of his way to pressure Lynch to drop the case, as conservatives are suggesting he did in the plane conversation?

But to Clinton critics, even ones who acknowledge an actual prosecution is very unlikely, that’s hardly a defense. Sure, Hillary's conduct was not actually illegal, but it was definitely sloppy and out of protocol, and Bill should know better than to create the appearance of impropriety by talking to Lynch in private while an investigation is still technically ongoing.

The Clintons assume they’ll be attacked no matter what

Hillary Clinton Holds Primary Night Event In Brooklyn, New York
The Clintons celebrate Hillary Clinton's victory on June 7.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s hard to deny Lynch’s ultimate conclusion: Even if nothing untoward happened in that conversation with Bill Clinton, it was still a bad idea for both parties.

Which raises the question: Why would Clinton walk into Lynch’s plane anyway, knowing how it would look?

Only Bill knows what he was thinking in that moment, and while no one would dispute that he’s a very intelligent man, he hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to self-control.

But it appears one lesson the Clintons have taken from their treatment in the press is that they will be unfairly attacked at all turns, and that trying to modify their behavior to minimize that is pointless.

Think about it: If you’d been accused of murdering a close friend of yours who killed himself, accused of corruption because you lost money in a real estate deal that went south, pilloried for nepotism when you were really trying to clean up a White House office where the FBI had found financial improprieties, and on and on and on, wouldn’t you feel like there was nothing you could do to prevent the media and Republicans from attacking you?

"It’s clear that even today she and her campaign feel that they can’t win with the press, that the story lines about her are already written," Rebecca Traister wrote in a New York magazine profile of Hillary Clinton in May. "It’s a paranoiac cycle — Clinton and her team think that everyone is after her, and their behavior creates further incentive for everyone to come after her."

You see this in all manner of Clinton mini scandals: her speeches to Goldman Sachs, the Clinton Foundation’s foreign fundraising, the emails. You’d think it would be obvious to a potential presidential candidate that taking money from the most hated bank in America is a bad idea — but if that candidate were convinced the media would savage her no matter what she did, then the case for just taking the money starts to make a lot more sense.

That seems like the simplest explanation for Bill Clinton reaching out to Lynch too. Maybe he did realize it would look bad. But given how he and Hillary think about their treatment by the press, maybe he just didn’t care.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.