Former President Bill Clinton spoke with Attorney General Loretta Lynch during an impromptu meeting in Phoenix, but Lynch said the discussion did not involve the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email use as secretary of state.
Lynch told reporters that the meeting at a Phoenix airport on Monday was unplanned and happened while the former president was waiting to depart and walked over to the attorney general's plane after she landed there.
Lynch was traveling with her husband and said her conversation with the former president "was a great deal about his grandchildren" and their travels. The former president, who recently became a grandfather for the second time, told her he had been playing golf in Arizona and they discussed former Attorney General Janet Reno, whom they both know.
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"There was no discussion of any matter pending for the department or any matter pending for any other body. There was no discussion of Benghazi, no discussion of the State Department emails, by way of example," Lynch said in Phoenix.
The exchange comes as the FBI is investigating the potential mishandling of sensitive information that passed through the server Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, used for personal and government correspondence as secretary of state.
Republicans have called for an independent prosecutor, saying the Justice Department under a Democratic president should not be investigating a Democratic presidential candidate.
"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," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn in a statement.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said he was surprised by the meeting between Lynch and the former president and sounded skeptical of the explanation of the meeting in an interview with ABC News.
"When you meet for a half-hour and you're talking about your grandchildren and a little about golf, I don't know, it sounds like a long meeting," Trump said Thursday.
Lynch, in a later meeting with reporters in Los Angeles, deflected questions about whether the meeting was appropriate — or created an appearance of impropriety — given the investigation. She noted that the investigation is being conducted by career investigators and agents "who always follow facts and the law."
David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that he takes Lynch and the ex-president "at their word that their convo in Phoenix didn't touch on probe. But foolish to create such optics."
Top Senate Democrats defended Lynch on Thursday. Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said her ethics "are the best." Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, Reid's likely successor in Democratic leadership, said nothing discussed was related to the investigation.
Hillary Clinton has not been interviewed by the FBI, but the Justice Department's yearlong probe into the email server appears to be nearing a conclusion. Clinton has said that her decision to rely on a private server was a mistake but that other secretaries of state had also used personal email addresses.
The matter was referred for investigation last July by the inspectors general for the State Department and intelligence community following the discovery of emails that they said contained classified information.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest wouldn't say whether the meeting was appropriate, only that Lynch understands that the rule of law is paramount, as does Obama.
"She certainly understands that investigations should be conducted free of political interference and consistent with the facts," Earnest said.