A key example of that effort focused on a meeting in July 2016 between former president Bill Clinton — husband to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — and then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. The two met briefly on a plane in Arizona, days before the FBI announced its decision not to pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. Lynch testified before Congress that the conversation was innocuous, focused on children and travel. Nonetheless, when news of the meeting emerged, Lynch recused herself from any decision-making related to the case.
It took Trump little time to suggest that the conversation was more sinister than had been presented.
Does anybody really believe that Bill Clinton and the U.S.A.G. talked only about "grandkids" and golf for 37 minutes in plane on tarmac?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2016
It wasn’t until a few months later, though, that the insinuation that the Clintons and Lynch had conspired against him became a central part of his stump speech.
On Oct. 7, WikiLeaks began dumping material stolen from the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Among them was an email from March 2015 in which her aide Huma Abedin describes Clinton’s relationship with Lynch — then just the nominee for attorney general — as “cordial,” although the two hadn’t been in touch for some time.
Trump raised that email in a speech the night it was published.
“Today WikiLeaks released new emails from early 2015 from Clinton campaign staffers discussing how friendly Hillary was with Attorney General Loretta Lynch,” he said. “I’m shocked to hear that. This was only months prior to the investigation of her illegal server."
He continued on to discuss the Bill Clinton-Lynch meeting.
“He didn’t talk about golf and he didn’t talk about his grandchildren, unless it was a minute or two,” Trump said of the conversation. “I would think he probably talked about appointing her as the attorney general if Hillary wins this election, and you’re not allowed to do that. And they were very embarrassed. And they thought it would be something where they could sneak on and sneak off.”
The significance of this line of attack in the current moment should be obvious. On Tuesday, Trump publicly criticized the Justice Department’s decision to seek a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump. After Trump’s tweet, the department announced that it would reduce the sentence it sought, spurring the entire prosecutorial team working on Stone’s case to resign in protest.
Stone was convicted in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering as part of an effort to protect Trump — and cover up his discussions about WikiLeaks’ releases of material during the 2016 campaign.
On Wednesday morning, Trump praised Attorney General William P. Barr for going easier on Stone, unaware or unconcerned about how his efforts to pressure Barr publicly contrasted with his rhetoric in 2016.
That rhetoric ramped up as the election approached. Two days after the WikiLeaks emails were published, Trump again criticized Clinton's meeting with Lynch in a pair of speeches in New Hampshire and Maine.
“The director’s performance in Congress, coupled with Bill Clinton’s clandestine meeting on the tarmac in the attorney general’s airplane just prior to decision time on Hillary — supposedly talking about golf and grandchildren — is perhaps the lowest point in those departments’ history,” Trump said in Bangor. “Instead of being held accountable, Hillary is running for president in what looks like a rigged election. The election is being rigged by corrupt media, pushing completely false allegations and outright lies, in an effort to elect her president."
“How can the attorney general be involved in this case or tell the FBI what to do?” Trump asked during a rally on Oct. 30. “When the attorney general violated sanctity of law by secretly meeting with Bill Clinton, the husband of the possible target of the investigation and a possible target himself, in an airplane on the tarmac in Arizona.
“Because of this highly inappropriate meeting at best,” Trump said, “the attorney general took herself essentially out of the case and put Director [James B.] Comey in charge of making decisions.” Comey, then FBI director, was, at that moment, in Trump’s good graces, having announced a few days prior that the investigation of Clinton’s email server was being reconsidered in light of new evidence. That announcement amounted to nothing legally, but probably helped Trump win the election.
Remarkably, Trump continued to allege that Clinton had acted inappropriately, even into his own administration. He had repeatedly criticized his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not pressing harder on investigations of Trump’s political enemies, including the Clintons. He had privately demanded an attorney general who would work for him, not for the American public, demands revealed in tweets such as this:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
Less than a month prior, Trump had tweeted this.
A.G. Lynch made law enforcement decisions for political purposes...gave Hillary Clinton a free pass and protection. Totally illegal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2017
Even as late as April 2018, he returned to his disparagement of the Clinton-Lynch meeting:
Comey throws AG Lynch “under the bus!” Why can’t we all find out what happened on the tarmac in the back of the plane with Wild Bill and Lynch? Was she promised a Supreme Court seat, or AG, in order to lay off Hillary. No golf and grandkids talk (give us all a break)!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2018
There is, by now, no question that Trump has tried to influence his own attorneys general to take actions aimed at benefiting himself or his allies. He has done so publicly. There is no evidence that similar pressure was directly applied by Bill Clinton in July 2016 and, even if it had been, Lynch quickly acted to eliminate questions of improper influence.
Three days before the 2016 election, Trump nonetheless called the tarmac meeting a “disgrace.” It was part of an extended riff based on revelations from WikiLeaks, material published by the organization after having received it from Russian hackers. The extent to which Trump’s campaign was aware of what WikiLeaks had planned is unknown, in part because Stone, who bragged about his contacts with the organization, lied and covered up what he knew.
The thanks Stone got? Trump just pressured his attorney general to go easy on him.