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Loretta Lynch's Tenure as Attorney General Is Off to a Dramatic Start

Loretta Lynch's Tenure as Attorney General Is Off to a Dramatic Start

It's late on a July afternoon in Durham, N.C., and Loretta Lynch, the country's new attorney general, is trying to warm up a room of stony-faced police officers. This Southern city is Lynch's hometown, and she's spent the day having lunch with her parents, who live nearby in a modest brick house, and indulging in a bit of local-girl-made-good celebration.

She attended a roundtable with community leaders who squeezed her shoulders and hugged her, and posed for pictures with local reporters. This encounter, with rows of seated police officers, is a little different. "I promise not to take too much of your time," she says, flanked by an American flag, wearing a navy sheath with matching blazer and navy slingbacks, which boost her height, of barely five feet, by a couple of inches. "Just because I’m the daughter of a Baptist minister doesn’t mean I'll go on long."

That wins her a few smiles. But when she asks for questions, the room turns silent. The fact is Lynch carries some baggage when it comes to police. Some is inherited — Lynch's predecessor Eric Holder came down hard on law enforcement in Cleveland and in Ferguson, Missouri — and some she's acquired on her own by opening an inquiry into the Baltimore Police Department following the death of Freddie Gray.

The atmosphere in the room is wary, and it's Lynch who has to break the silence. "OK, let me ask you a few questions," she says, looking an officer seated before her in the eye. "How long have you been a police officer? Why did you want this job?" For a couple of beats, it's not clear whether he'll answer. Lynch holds the cop's gaze, and it's the quality of her attention, its patience and respect, that seems to move him to speak. "My father and brother were officers,” he says, “so you could say it’s the family business." As she directs the conversation around the room, the police talk with increasing candor.

A young black woman says she became a cop five years ago "because I saw my family treated unfairly, and I wanted to be on the front lines in making change." An older white man tells Lynch that when he was a boy of 11, "my stepfather beat my mother to a pulp, and a police officer arrested him." A fourth officer describes fleeing Cyprus at the age of four and resolving that one day, "I would protect my family and my society." Lynch listens patiently, and by the end it’s obvious she has made an impression. Several heads nod as she says in closing: "The lines that divide the police and the community can be so artificial."

"I wonder if they'd heard one another's stories before," she says to me that evening, as we fly back to Washington, D.C., in a government plane (call it Air Force Four). She and her husband of eight years, Stephen Hargrove, formerly an on-air technician for the Showtime network, who affably came along for the trip, have been recounting the day. (When I introduced myself to Hargrove at the police event, he gave me a courteous handshake and then won himself good-husband points, in my book, by turning his attention to Lynch as she began speaking.)

The couple is drinking pink lemonade, and Lynch is still wearing her suit jacket and slingbacks. The encounter with the Durham police is clearly on her mind. Lynch spoke earlier about training officers on the effects of unconscious racial bias, and we muse for a moment about whether absorbing other cops' personal narratives, on a racially diverse force, might be a place to start.

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In one sense, it's a miracle that Lynch is on this plane at all. After President Obama selected her last November, she waited more than five months to be confirmed, longer than the seven previous nominees for the job combined. Lynch’s record was never the problem: At 56, she'd done two stints as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn for New York's Eastern District, where she was well liked and oversaw major terrorism, Mafia, and public-corruption prosecutions.

Republicans approved of the fact that she had no personal ties to the president — and yet Lynch found herself in Washington's version of purgatory, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held up her nomination in an effort to wring concessions from Democrats on immigration and abortion. By the time she finally won the Senate’s approval in April by a vote of 56 to 43, less than two years remained in Obama's presidency. Though it's possible she could stay on (what do you think, Hillary Clinton?), Lynch has to assume that her clock is ticking along with the president's.

That means the time is now to ask how she will make an impact. The only moment she bristles in talking to me, just a bit, is when I ask how she can avoid a caretaker role. "The issues are too large and too immediate," Lynch says firmly. This is the next day, in her Washington office — which she's still in the process of decorating, with a portrait of herself and her mother and a small collection of art: an engraved elephant statuette from a trip to Israel and a pair of bronze cats from Benin. Referring to the nation’s many enemies, she says, "They don't have a calendar that says, 'In eighteen months we're done seeking to rain terror on the United States. In eighteen months we're done trying to defraud America or crack their cyber codes.'"

In fact, Lynch's term is already off to a dramatic start. She dominated the news at the end of May by accusing top officials in the international soccer organization, FIFA, of rank corruption. Announcing the 47-count indictment, Lynch looked unflappable — even as if she was having a good time — and the confidence and the sweep of her presentation made her a worldwide phenomenon. She may be the Obama official most likely to be confused with a country singer, but she is also now "FIFA hunter," as a German headline put it. At the finals of the Women's World Cup, a three-foot cutout of Lynch’s head bobbed in the stands. "This cutout was a rock star," the fan who made the image told NPR. "Everyone wanted a picture with it."

Winning over soccer fans is easy. Lynch's effort to charm the officers in Durham suggests the true test she's facing: how to improve police-community relationships. On that front, Lynch appears to be sounding a significantly different note from that of Holder, who often spoke with heat — more so than the president — about inequality in the criminal-justice system. Civil rights leaders cheered Holder, but he became a lightning rod for conservatives: Republicans in the House voted him in contempt of Congress in 2012.

Republican expectations for change are high. "Fresh leadership was really needed at the Department of Justice," says Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of ten GOP members who supported Lynch’s nomination. Taking a swing at Holder, she adds, "Attorney General Lynch has the background as a career prosecutor, and as someone who was not chosen because she is part of the president’s inner circle, to rebuild relationships across the aisle."

Obama's "inner circle" sees the dynamic differently. "What the Republicans did to Eric Holder was totally unjustified," says Valerie Jarrett, Obama's longtime senior adviser and confidante (and upcoming MAKER!). But she too thinks Lynch has an opportunity. "Loretta has a stellar reputation for working with everyone," Jarrett says, calling Lynch (perhaps less helpfully, given the ways of Washington) "one of my favorite people."


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Loretta Lynch can trace her ancestry back at least five generations in North Carolina, and her family history bears the hallmarks of African-American struggle and resistance. Lynch’s great-great-grandfather, a free black man, fell in love with a slave and reentered bondage to marry her. He was first in a long family line of Baptist ministers. Her grandfather, a sharecropper, opened his church to hide black men wanted by the law. “They didn’t think they would get a fair deal in court,” says Lynch’s father, the Reverend Lorenzo Lynch. "Loretta grew up hearing that story, and I know it stuck in her mind."

When Lynch and her two brothers were young, in the 1960s, their father held civil-rights meetings at home. He also ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Durham against a white candidate in 1973 on a platform of government reform. “My foundation from my family,” Lynch tells me, “was watching my father never back down from a fight locally. My dad felt that there should be an opposition candidate, that if he had that view and he really believed it, he should live up to it, which is how I came home from school one day to see the headline that my dad was running for mayor.”

Lynch and her brothers also watched their parents earn graduate degrees. "Their emphasis was that we live in a society with racism, that is clear, but your job is to better yourself," said Leonzo Lynch, 53, the attorney general’s brother and the fifth minister in the family. "You got an education, you did your best, and that would lift you above society's view of your color." One summer, because the family owned only one car, her mother relocated to Greensboro, N.C., for several weeks, to finish the coursework for a master’s degree in library studies. Lynch remembers complaining about her father's cooking. "We would come down for breakfast, and there would be chicken and string beans. You know, you're kids. So you're like, 'Why are we eating this? What’s going on?'" she says. "But we all knew that our mother was doing something that she really wanted, and it was important to her."

In the end, Lynch learned a lesson from her mother about defying gender expectations. In the South, she says, "there's very much a view, sometimes, as to what little girls should do, or what women should do, and you really do not have to accept that."

Meanwhile, Lynch's parents shielded her, as best they could, from racism. In fourth grade, she says, when she performed well on a standardized test, her school, refusing to believe the score, asked her to retake it. "My parents never told me why," says Lynch, who then got a higher score. At graduation her school decided that she would share the honor of valedictorian with two other students, one white and one black, she says.

Her parents learned that this decision, too, was based on race — the school didn't want a single black valedictorian — but again, kept the truth from their daughter. "As a preacher, I had seen some black people who were mad," Reverend Lynch explains. "And once you get angry, you don't think as well, and you don't study as well or grow as fast."

More difficult for her parents was Lynch's push to go to Harvard instead of the University of North Carolina, where she was offered a full scholarship. "As a pastor of a church, I was on a very limited salary, so I said, 'My gracious!'" her father remembers. Lynch says she was determined to broaden her horizons: "Quite frankly, I needed to build my own world." She asked to live with freshmen from various parts of the country and drew support from a core of black classmates. "We could really just hang out, as small-town girls coming to the big time," says her classmate Dana Scott Saulsberry, now a school administrator in St. Louis, who remains a close friend. She and Lynch sang in the college gospel choir (the attorney general was a first alto) and were two of the founding eleven members of the Cambridge chapter of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta.

Known for its record of public service, Delta counts several former and current members of Congress among its members. The emphasis on leadership was a natural fit for Lynch, say her sorority sisters, who turned out for her confirmation hearing wearing the group's signature colors, crimson and cream.

"Loretta was a fully formed adult when we were 19 years old," says Sharon Malone, a fellow founding member of the Delta chapter who is an obstetrician-gynecologist and the wife of Eric Holder. "The Loretta you see now, composed and mature and measured—she was like that 35 years ago.” Lynch’s friends remember a playful side as well. "She was a cheerleader for the basketball team when the cheerleaders didn't even have uniforms," her friend Scott Saulsberry says. A few years ago, for a presentation at a conference of the country's U.S. attorneys, Lynch offered photographic proof: a portrait of herself grinning in a pyramid of Harvard cheerleaders.

Lynch's father was surprised when his daughter, who’d majored in En­glish and American literature and had interned at CBS, told him she wanted to go to Harvard Law School — but he agreed to help pay for that degree, too. After graduation, Lynch spent five years at a corporate law firm. She made the decision to leave after a fateful Friday evening in 1990. It was a period of her life, years before she got married, when she was devoting herself to work and treating personal relationships as secondary. ("Back then, it sort of felt like you had to choose," Scott Saulsberry says.) "I was pushing, pushing to make a deadline, and I literally passed out at my desk."

"My face hit the desk, actually," Lynch says. "I spent the night in the hospital hooked up to an IV, and the diagnosis was exhaustion and dehydration. When the prescription is to get some rest, and you're a young law-firm associate, it's hard to figure out how to fit that in. So I spent the night watching the IV and thinking. I really did enjoy what I was doing, but was it the highest and best use of my abilities? If I was going to pass out at work, was this really what I wanted to be doing?"

Lynch moved to the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, working out of the basement and traveling to Long Island for narcotics cases. Then she was chosen for the team of prosecutors that tried five white police officers in 1999 for the violent assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

The outcome was mixed: One officer, who was accused of forcing a broom into Louima, pled guilty mid-trial and received a 30-year sentence, but three others were acquitted, and a fourth succeeded in reversing his conviction on appeal. Lynch, however, earned praise for a strong, passionate summation. "She had to respond to everything the defense threw at us," remembers Alan Vinegrad, her successor in Brooklyn, who worked with Lynch for 25 years. "Some supporters of the police were upset by what she said, but she never let that get to her."

The same year, President Bill Clinton tapped Lynch for U.S. attorney, and she took the helm in her Brooklyn office. She left when the presidency changed hands, as political appointees usually do, and returned to private practice, becoming chief federal prosecutor in Brooklyn for a second time in 2010, at President Obama’s request. Perhaps the strongest criticism of Lynch involves a decision she made at this point in her career not to press charges.

In 2012, a Senate investigation of the multinational bank HSBC turned up evidence of money-laundering in the hundreds of millions. "At the time, it was the biggest money-laundering bank-fraud case anyone had seen,” says University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, author of the book Too Big to Jail. “Money was going through HSBC to drug cartels, to terrorists, to every terrible place you can think of.”

Yet Lynch opted for a settlement agreement: HSBC would pay $1.9 billion in fines and agree to independent monitoring for five years. The deal drew criticism from both left and right. "If you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night," said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, in 2013. Republicans revived the issue during Lynch's confirmation hearings, saying she demonstrated "a pattern of lax enforcement of mega banks," in the words of Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana. "This is exactly the opposite message Wall Street should be hearing from the Justice Department."

When I ask Lynch about the HSBC settlement, she points out that overseas transactions can be difficult to prosecute (though this didn't stop her from going after FIFA). She also says that the independent monitor's reports on HSBC, which are public, provide a template of accountability for other banks. "We know that corporate America looks at those," Lynch says. In April, however, the monitoring showed that HSBC has been slow to change. "It's not like they can point to a clear success, because this bank isn't fixed," Garrett says.

Whatever the merits of the HSBC deal, and of the subsequent deal she cut with banks over a price-fixing scheme, Lynch — much like the president who appointed her — has not made cracking down on Wall Street a stated priority. Her focus, she says, will be human trafficking, cybersecurity, national security, and police-community relations. (In July, she made news announcing federal hate-crime charges against Dylann Roof for killing nine worshippers at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.)

There's also a Justice Department with more than 110,000 employees to run. On the plane home from Durham, she could not resist saying to her staff, "There is so much to do." Though she also told them to take vacations. "Then I have to turn around and apply the same advice to myself,” Lynch said ruefully. She no longer passes out at her desk, but she still has to make a conscious effort to stop working and read one of the mysteries she’s fond of. Her family helps. Lynch's father attended every one of her trials in New York, bringing her sandwiches every time.

Lynch met her husband at police headquarters there, at an event they both attended to celebrate the promotion of a mutual friend on the force, and they swam with sharks at Bora Bora on their honeymoon after getting married on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. She cherishes meals with him at their new home in the Washington, D.C., area — not to mention watching the odd episode of "Scandal" — and takes trips with his two kids, ages 20 and 21. She knows, though, that she can't ask her stepchildren for too much togetherness. "They're at the point where they sometimes question why they should spend time with anyone over the age of 40," she jokes.

Maybe it's time to bring out the tennis rackets. Lynch learned to play after law school. It's not an easy sport to pick up as an adult, but Lynch was, as usual, determined. "I always wanted to play, so I thought, I'm just going to get a racket and go," she said. In Brooklyn, she had a regular foursome for singles and doubles. Though she hasn't found hitting partners yet in Washington, she's on the lookout. After all, she says, "you can always get better."

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Photo credit: Vogue