A private conversation between Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday, amid an ongoing FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, sparked rebukes from Republicans and concern among some Democrats about the perceptions it created.
The White House faced questions Thursday about whether the administration approved of the meeting, described by Lynch as an impromptu encounter, and whether it might undermine public confidence into the e-mail investigation, which has been a persistent drag on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Lynch has been forthcoming about the meeting with the former president at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix and that he wouldn't "second-guess'' the attorney general's handling of the case.
"She certainly understands that investigations should be conducted free of political interference and consistent with the facts," Earnest told reporters on Thursday.
Earlier in the week, Lynch said there was "no discussion'' of the FBI's investigation or any matter before the Justice Department when she met with Bill Clinton.
"When I was landing at the airport, I did see President Clinton at the Phoenix airport as I was leaving and he spoke to myself and my husband on the plane,'' Lynch said at a news conference Wednesday in Phoenix carried by ABC15 . "Our conversation was a great deal about his grandchildren. It was primarily social and about our travels. He mentioned the golf he played in Phoenix.''
An aide to Bill Clinton, who asked for anonymity to describe the private meeting, said it was a chance encounter when the former president realized the two were sitting in planes on the same tarmac.
The FBI is investigating whether classified material was mishandled through Hillary Clinton's use of a private server for her personal and governmental communication while she was secretary of state during President Barack Obama's first term. The server set-up, which Clinton has said was a mistake, has provided a frequent attack line for her critics as she runs for president, including presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Trump blasted the meeting as poor judgment on the part of Lynch and Bill Clinton.
"It was really a sneak. It was really something that they didn’t want publicized, as I understand it," Trump said Thursday on the Mike Gallagher radio show. "I just think it’s so terrible, I think it’s so horrible.''
Texas Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, said the incident warrants the appointment of a special prosecutor to continue the investigation into Clinton's use of e-mail.
"In light of the apparent conflicts of interest, I have called repeatedly on Attorney General Lynch to appoint a Special Counsel to ensure the investigation is as far from politics as possible," Cornyn said in a statement. "This incident does nothing to instill confidence in the American people that her department can fully and fairly conduct this investigation, and that's why a Special Counsel is needed now more than ever."
Some Democrats, while expressing confidence in Lynch's integrity, voiced concerns about the appearance of the meeting.
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, said on Twitter that it was "foolish to create such optics."
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and Clinton supporter, said on CNN Thursday that he is confident in Lynch but that the meeting "sends the wrong signal."
"She has generally shown excellent judgment and strong leadership of the department,'' he said. "I think she should have steered clear, even of a brief, casual, social meeting with the former president.''
Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, said Thursday it has asked the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General to conduct an investigation of the meeting between Lynch and Bill Clinton. The organization is one of several pressing Hillary Clinton to make public the e-mail records of her tenure as secretary of state.