Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said Friday she will remove herself from the decision-making process about whether to seek charges in the investigation involving Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State.
The decision comes after Lynch came under fire for having a private meeting early this week with Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, during a chance encounter at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport.
In an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday morning, Lynch conceded the meeting hurt the Justice Department's reputation by creating an appearance of impropriety, though she insisted she did not discuss the case with the former president.
She also announced that she would abide by the recommendations of career prosecutors and FBI Director James Comey about how to proceed with the email investigation and whether to file any charges.
"I will be accepting their recommendations and their plan going forward," she said, adding that she felt bad that the meeting has "cast a shadow over how people are going to view that work, something I take seriously."
Lynch and other Justice Department officials said she had already decided to abide by prosecutors' and the FBI's recommendation in the case. Given Lynch's background as a career prosecutor, it was unlikely that she would have use her authority to overrule the FBI anyway, an action that would have undoubtedly leaked and triggered a political backlash.
But the poor appearance surrounding the meeting with Bill Clinton led Lynch to publicly announce her decision in an attempt to quell the controversy and restore public faith in the probe.
The attorney general, who served twice as the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., before taking the reins of the Justice Department in April 2015, stopped short of formally recusing herself from the case, telling Washington Post journalist Jonathan Capehart that doing so would prevent her from even being briefed on its findings by agents and prosecutors.
Justice Department political appointees often find themselves in difficult situations when they investigate high-profile and political figures. President Nixon infamously triggered the 1973 resignations of his attorney general and deputy attorney general when he demanded the firing of a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
More recently, FBI officials expressed private frustration that top Justice Department officials permitted David Petraeus, the former Army general and CIA director, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for disclosing classified information to his mistress, who was writing a book about him, while he headed the intelligence agency. They had hoped to see Petraeus prosecuted on felony charges, but Justice Department prosecutors, including then-Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. , believed that the case would be messy and difficult to win and agreed to allow Petraeus to plead to a lesser misdemeanor.
In their investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server, FBI agents and prosecutors are trying to understand whether classified material was knowingly or negligently discussed over the private system.
The controversy was that latest reminder that the email probe continues to dog Clinton's presidential campaign. A final decision on the probe is not expected for several weeks.
The meeting with Bill Clinton appears to have been a coincidence. The former president, who was departing the airport on a private jet, noticed Lynch's plane had arrived and decided to go over and say hello, said a person familiar with the meeting. He then boarded and spoke with Lynch and her husband, Stephen Hargrove, who had joined the attorney general on her trip.
Lynch said Tuesday that the meeting was personal and did not delve into the email investigation.
"Our conversation was a great deal about his grandchildren," Lynch told reporters in Phoenix on Tuesday afternoon. "It was primarily social and about our travels. He mentioned the golf he played in Phoenix, and he mentioned travels he'd had in West Virginia. We talked about former attorney general Janet Reno, for example, whom we both know, but there was no discussion of any matter pending for the department or any matter pending for any other body."
Despite her assurances, Lynch was blasted by Republicans, who said it raised questions about her fairness in overseeing the probe. Democrats expressed frustration that the former president would put the attorney general in such a position.
"Atty. Gen. Lynch's private meeting with Bill Clinton raises many questions about the investigation into Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information," he said in a statement.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas issued a statement Thursday reiterating his earlier call for a special prosecutor to over see the case because "this incident does nothing to instill confidence in the American people that her department can fully and fairly conduct this investigation."
Former Justice Department lawyers and law professors said Lynch has the reputation of being a straight-shooter and a by-the-book prosecutor, and were surprised that she allowed Bill Clinton onto her plane.
"It was unfortunate and she has admitted that the optics were not good in retrospect," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, adding that she had mitigated some of the fallout by deferring the decision on filing charges to Comey and career prosecutors.
Tobias and others noted that the FBI director served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and was known for not being timid about standing up to the White House.
"Comey enjoys a sterling reputation for addressing complex, difficult situations that arose in the Bush years," Tobias said.
11:09 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and background.
9:09 a.m.: This article has been updated with Lynch discussing her decision at the Aspens Ideas Festival .
5:22 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional background.