Loretta Lynch calls 'attacks' on Justice Department 'painful'

The recent wave of harsh attacks on the Justice Department and its law enforcement arm, the FBI, have been "painful," former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in an exclusive interview set to air Monday.

Lynch, speaking with NBC News' Lester Holt, defended the tens of thousands of people who work for the Justice Department, saying it is "troubling when people question the motivations of dedicated, committed professionals."

"I look at the department as a place that I was proud to lead," said Lynch, an Obama administration appointee. "So watching the attacks on it is painful at times."

Watch "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt" Monday for more of this exclusive interview

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the Justice Department and the FBI, disparaging Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Twitter and blasting the law enforcement agency over its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"I look at the department as a place that I was proud to lead."

Lynch also addressed her chance encounter with former President Bill Clinton in June 2016. She reiterated that the discussions on her plane on a tarmac in Phoenix was purely social, saying the two "talked about innocuous things."

Lynch again insisted she and the former president did not talk about Hillary Clinton, the subject of a Justice Department review over her use of a private email server, or any other criminal investigations.

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Instead, Lynch said Bill Clinton told a "long but charming story" about grandchildren. The two also chatted about "issues of the day," such as Brexit.

The former attorney general said the controversial exchange "turned into a much longer conversation than it should have," and that it was fortunate when one of her staff members boarded the plane and brought up "how we all had to move on to our evenings."

Lynch has previously expressed regret over socializing with Bill Clinton in such a manner, saying it "cast a shadow" over the email probe.

She again acknowledged that "my speaking to the former president raised concerns in people's minds about whether or not there was going to be any impact on the email investigation."

That's why, as Lynch said in July 2016 testimony before Congress, she announced after the encounter that she would accept her investigative team's recommendation about charges against Hillary Clinton.

She said it "certainly was an unusual move" when James Comey, the FBI chief who was fired by Trump last May, held a news conference on July 5, 2016, recommending no criminal charges against the former Democratic nominee.

"It was a different way to deliver a recommendation to the attorney general," Lynch said. Asked whether it was right or wrong to hold that news conference, Lynch said Comey would have to "speak to why he took those actions."

Comey is expected to address that episode in an upcoming autobiography, "A Higher Loyalty," due out April 17.

Lynch said she was "surprised as any American" when Trump made an apparently "quick decision to fire the FBI director," noting that Comey's dismissal is now being examined by special counsel Robert Mueller.

"I think I, like most Americans, await that report," Lynch said.