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Experts doubt Lynch comments will silence controversy over Clinton meeting

Attorney General Loretta Lynch discussed her involvement with the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server in Aspen, Colorado on July 1, 2016. (CNN)

Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged Friday that "reasonable" questions have been asked about her meeting with former president Bill Clinton on the tarmac at a Phoenix airport, but her effort to put those concerns to rest may not go far enough.

At an event in Aspen, Colorado, Lynch explained that she will accept the recommendations of career investigators and prosecutors at the Department of Justice (DOJ) when they decide whether to pursue charges in connection with Hillary Clinton's email practices.

The FBI is investigating whether classified information was mishandled due to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Lynch and FBI Director James Comey have repeatedly insisted that political considerations will not impact that investigation, but Republicans have argued that Lynch should recuse herself and appoint a special prosecutor.

Lynch stopped short of that step Friday, announcing that she will follow investigators' recommendations, whatever they are.

Lynch has said she and Bill Clinton talked casually on her plane for about 30 minutes and the ongoing investigation was never mentioned. That answer has not silenced the Clintons' critics, and Lynch's insistence of impartiality is unlikely to pacify them.

"I certainly wouldn't do it again because I think it has cast a shadow over what it should not," Lynch said Friday.

With GOP opponent Donald Trump customarily referring to Hillary Clinton as "Crooked Hillary," political experts say any hint of corruption is unhelpful for Hillary Clinton at best.

"For a guy who people look back and say he's a real sharp politician, a real brilliant guy, this was a dumb move," said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball political newsletter.

Clinton and Lynch should both have recognized that the meeting would look bad, but his mistake is not shocking, given his history of personal scandals.

"Bill Clinton seemed to have a pretty good feel for political questions but any time you got in the realm of the personal... I can't say Bill Clinton has a real strong record on personal judgment," Skelley said.

Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor at Boston University, had a harsher assessment.

"What you're seeing is typical Clinton operating procedure," he said. The couple has been hounded by allegations of being "ethically challenged" throughout their careers.

Despite the Clintons' efforts to rehabilitate that reputation over the years, Berkovitz said it is part of who they are, for better or worse.

"It's a Greek tragedy," he said. "It's hubris. They feel that whatever they do is the right thing, it's how they see the world and they don't always think about how mere mortals would perceive this."

Democratic strategist Craig Varoga suggested the controversy is being driven by partisanship rather than genuine concern about the integrity of the investigation.

"Independent observers, without any political agenda, take Lynch at her word that no sensitive law enforcement matters came up in what, by all accounts, was an accidental, unplanned encounter," he said.

Other Democrats have criticized Clinton for instigating the meeting and creating an optics problem for his wife's campaign, even if it was the harmless visit that Lynch has characterized it as.

Sen. Chris Coons said in a CNN interview Thursday that the meeting "doesn't send the right signal."

Former Obama strategist David Axelrod called the conversation "foolish" on Twitter.

Legal experts have also found the incident troubling.

"The meeting was highly inappropriate and demonstrates a clear conflict of interest for Attorney General Lynch," said Kendra Arnold, general counsel for the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a watchdog group that has frequently criticized the Clintons.

In addition to Bill Clinton being the husband of a woman at the center of an open FBI investigation, Arnold pointed to news report suggesting that the inquiry also involves the Clinton Foundation so he may be under investigation as well.

Even if Americans believe Lynch's claim that it was only a social meeting, Arnold argued that demonstrates that Lynch has a social relationship with a party to an investigation. She said a special counsel should be appointed to eliminate any possibility of impropriety.

"This is precisely the type of situation where special counsel should be appointed, and it's necessary to maintain the citizens' confidence in the judicial system."

Lynch has resisted such calls in the past. She gave no indication in her comments Friday that her position has changed.

The tarmac meeting did not raise new concerns for University of Minnesota Law School Professor Richard Painter, but the former chief ethics attorney for President George W. Bush already felt Lynch should not be involved with the case.

"I think it is fine for Bill Clinton to talk with the AG because I don't think she should be making the decision anyway," Painter said. He doubts Lynch would discuss the case with Clinton, but any investigation with potential political implications as massive as this should be out of the hands of political appointees.

"The reason I think she and probably all political appointees at the DOJ should recuse or at least defer to the judgment of career lawyers at the DOJ is that Hillary Clinton is their party's nominee for president," Painter explained.

Lynch's assurance Friday that she will follow investigators' recommendations allays some of Painter's fears, assuming that those recommendations are revealed to the public.

Legal and ethical issues aside, experts say the political fallout from the meeting may reinforce voters' existing doubts about Hillary Clinton's honesty.

The latest Gallup poll data shows Trump with the highest negative ratings on record, surpassing Barry Goldwater in 1964. Clinton's numbers are slightly better than Goldwater's were.

A recent Investors' Business Daily poll put Clinton's favorability at 39 percent, a bit better than Trump's 37 percent. Trump had a two-percent advantage on honesty and trustworthiness, though.

A Fox News poll conducted earlier this week concluded that only 30 percent of respondents considered Clinton honest, compared to 34 percent for Trump.

While a Quinnipiac University poll found more voters believe Clinton has higher moral standards, Trump is seen as more honest by 45 percent and Clinton is only trusted more by 37 percent.

A CNN/ORC poll from mid-June got exactly the same numbers, a reversal from a March poll where Clinton was more trusted by a five-point margin.

Although Trump does surpass Clinton on honesty in these polls, Skelley emphasized that both candidates' numbers are still terrible. The narrative that Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted and the Clintons play by their own rules is an ongoing challenge for her campaign, and this does not help.

"It seems to give more truth to what a lot of people already believe about them," Skelley said.

However, one more questionable decision may not prove especially damaging for Clinton.

"The people who are most politically animated by this event are Republicans, most of whom aren't going to vote for Clinton anyway," Skelley said.

Changing the opinions of Republicans and independents who have grown to distrust her over decades might not be possible, but Trump's own cratering favorability gives her an alternative.

"That die has been cast, so all that she can do is say that Trump is worse, Trump is more dishonest," Berkovitz said.

He still faulted the Clintons for their efforts to explain away their mistakes and misstatements, using the Lynch meeting as an example.

"Not only are there issues of their honesty and their trustworthiness," he said, "but it's always these bizarre circumstances and explanations that just stretch anyone's credulity."

With just over four months until the election, knocking Trump down may be easier than building herself up.

"All she can do is put a negative blowtorch to Trump," Berkovitz said.

That will not necessarily be difficult. The non-partisan fact-checking site PolitiFact released a mid-year report Friday showing that nearly 80 percent of Trump statements they have investigated were false. 70 percent of Trump comments evaluated by Washington Post fact-checkers received their "Four Pinocchios" rating.

"Donald Trump -- after claiming falsely that President Obama was not born in the US, that John McCain as a POW was not a real American hero and that Ted Cruz' father was involved in JFK's assassination -- has zero credibility to talk trash about anybody," Varoga said, "even though that is the sole foundation of his campaign."

Lynch's comments Friday are unlikely to calm the political storm surrounding the Clintons, and suspicion about the meeting has already made it into Trump's stump speech--"he opened up a Pandora's box," Trump said of Bill Clinton at a rally Friday afternoon--but the full impact of it will not be clear until the FBI investigation is complete. Officials have said there is no timeline to wrap up the case, but investigators are believed to be in the final stages of it.

Regardless of Lynch's actions, Berkovitz predicted the public will eventually learn what the FBI decides, even if it is only through unauthorized leaks.

"Someone's going to drop a dime on that if recommendations are made and then countermanded by the attorney general," he said, "and then it would totally taint Obama's Justice Department, as well as Bill and Hillary."

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