Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch describe their infamous “tarmac meeting”

What tarmac meeting?
What tarmac meeting?
Image: Reuters / Lucas Jackson
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The office of US inspector general Michael Horowitz released a long-awaited report yesterday, about the actions of the Justice Department and FBI during the 2016 presidential campaign. One particularly striking passage (p.205-211) describes the now-infamous “tarmac meeting” between then-attorney general Loretta Lynch and former president Bill Clinton in Phoenix, Arizona.

Some Trump supporters have claimed that the June 27 meeting proved that Obama’s administration and Hillary Clinton’s campaign were colluding to get her elected to the presidency. What the inspector general’s report reveals, however, is just how awkward the meeting was—and how radically differently Lynch and Clinton experienced that ill-advised encounter.

On stepping into Lynch’s airplane

Clinton: “Former President Clinton said that he recalled walking toward Lynch’s plane with his Chief of Staff, and that Lynch and her staff were ‘getting off the airplane.’ He said that he greeted Lynch, who was on the plane, and Lynch stated, ‘[L]ook it’s a 100 degrees out there, come up and we’ll talk about our grandkids.'”

Lynch: “Lynch said that former President Clinton boarded the plane in a matter of seconds, suggesting that he was in the stairwell near the door to the plane. Lynch said that she was very surprised that he wanted to meet with her because they did not have a social relationship, and she was also surprised to see him ‘right there in the doorway so quickly.'”

On West Virginia coal

Clinton: “Former President Clinton also said that he did not recall mentioning West Virginia coal policy to Lynch, but that he would not be shocked if he had done so because he thought a lot about it, and he frequently talked about the issue.”

Lynch: “And then he made some comment about West Virginia. And I do not know if he was headed to West Virginia. I just don’t know…if that was the reference to it. And he made a…comment about West Virginia and coal issues and how their problems really stem from policies that were set forth in 1932. And he talked about those policies for a while. And, and I said, okay, well.”

On the appropriateness of their conversation

Clinton: “[Bill Clinton] said that he discussed with his Chief of Staff whether he should say hello to Lynch, and that they debated whether he should do it because of ‘all the hoopla’ in the campaign. He stated, ‘I just wanted to say hello to her and I thought it would look really crazy if we were living in [a] world [where] I couldn’t shake hands with the Attorney General you know when she was right there.’

‘I literally didn’t know she was there until somebody told me she was there,’ Clinton said. ‘And we looked out the window and it was really close and all of her staff was unloading, so I thought she’s about to get off and I’ll just go shake hands with her when she gets off.”

Lynch: “Lynch estimated that she talked to former President Clinton for approximately 20 minutes before a member of her staff came back onto the plane, as we describe below. She said that she became increasingly concerned as the meeting ‘went on and on.’ Lynch said that when she thought about it later that evening and discussed it with her staff about in the context of the case, she concluded ‘that it was just too long a conversation to have had. It…went beyond hi, how are you, shake hands, move on sort of thing. It went beyond the discussions I’ve had with other people in public life, even in political life, it went beyond that [in terms of length].’”

On Lynch’s senior counselor

Lynch: “Lynch said that after the Senior Counselor got back on the plane, former President Clinton commented, ‘Oh, she’s mad at me, because I’d been on the plane too long. And she’s come to get you.’ Lynch said that she replied to him, ‘[W]ell, we do have to go. And then he kept talking about something else.’ She said that he kept talking for ‘a good 5 minutes’ after the Senior Counselor got back on the plane. Lynch said that she finally stood up and said, ‘[Y]ou know, it was very nice of you to come. Thank you so much. And just…thank you again for stopping by.’ She said that they said goodbye several times, and her husband shook former President Clinton’s hand again. Former President Clinton then left the plane.”

Lynch’s senior counselor: “The Senior Counselor said that when she got on the plane, she saw Lynch, Lynch’s husband, and former President Clinton sitting down and ‘chatting…in a casual way.’ The Senior Counselor said that she walked up to the three of them and stood there hoping that her presence would break up the meeting. She said that Lynch saw her and introduced her to former President Clinton, and she shook his hand. The Senior Counselor said that she hoped this would get everyone moving, but then former President Clinton sat back down.

The Senior Counselor stated, ‘So then…I kind of didn’t know what to do because…it was a little bit unusual to be in a room with…a former president and say…you need to leave…. So…I think I stared at them for a little bit longer, and then went back to where [the head of Lynch’s security detail] was standing.’ The Senior Counselor said that she considered whether she should go get someone else or go back over to Lynch and tell her, ‘Look, ma’am, we have to go.’ She said she then went and stood in front of the group again.”

Reflecting on the tarmac meeting

Clinton: “[T]he mainstream media wasn’t as bad on that as they were on a lot of things, I thought, I think the ones that were criticizing me, I thought you know, I don’t know whether I’m more offended that they think I’m crooked or that they think I’m stupid. I’ve got an idea, I’ll do all these things they accuse me of doing in broad daylight in an airport in Phoenix when the whole world can see it in front of an Air Force One crew and I believe one of her security guards. It was an interesting proposition, but no we did not.”

Lynch (as described by Melanie Newman, the director of the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs): “Newman characterized Lynch as ‘devastated’ about the tarmac meeting. She stated: ‘[Lynch] doesn’t take mistakes lightly, and she felt like she had made…an incredible…mistake in judgment by saying yes instead of no, that he could come on the plane. But also, she’s like the most polite, Southern person alive. I, I don’t know in what circumstances she would have said no, or what would have happened if she had said no…. I would have much preferred a story that the Attorney General turned a former President of the United States away on the tarmac, but…she doesn’t make mistakes, and she was not pleased with herself for making this kind of high-stakes mistake.'”