|Donald Trump, in his "stalking" pose, with Hillary Clinton|
That came when Trump informed Clinton that, if elected, he would seek to have her prosecuted and thrown in the slammer. Why? That wasn't real clear, at least to me, but it apparently was over the Clinton e-mail controversy. In essence, Trump said he intended to turn the United States into a banana republic, with him playing the role of Idi Amin, or some other unsavory character with dictatorish tendencies.
This should have been a horrifying moment for all Americans; Trump already has admitted to engaging in federal bribery, and now he was announcing plans to practice political prosecutions. But it should have been especially terrifying in Alabama, where we have experienced our fill of dubious prosecutions during the George W. Bush era, including perhaps the most notorious political prosecution in American history -- the one involving former Governor Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.
How big a moment was this in last night's debate. Consider these Twitter words from Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman:
Let's be clear: a candidate for president promised to put his opponent in jail if he wins. Everything else is secondary.
Author Greg Mitchell added this perspective at his blog:
I flipped continually between CNN and MSNBC and it was astounding how little attention was paid, for many minutes, to Trump's jaw-dropping promise to prosecute and jail Hillary (in a Nixon-like abuse of power) as they continued to give him high marks in the debate. I was watching what seemed to be turning points at both cable channels when Van Jones and James Carville finally went ballistic on this. Almost in shame, some of the others starting talking about it. Or perhaps they had checked their Twitter feeds and saw what so many others were saying about this. . . . This morning the Trump display of fascism made the top of newspaper front pages all over Europe. Yet most of our own TV commentators shrugged it off for too long.
Why was this likely the most stunning statement ever made in a U.S. presidential debate? It's not that it was news; Trump has made similar statements dating at least to February 2016. But to hear a candidate say he has zero respect for the rule of law, and zero understanding of presidential powers . . . well, it makes you wonder how he got this far -- and it sure makes you hope he does not get any farther.
As CNN commentator Paul Begala tried to explain, the president appoints an attorney general, as the leader of the U.S. Department of Justice. But the AG, in our democracy, does not "serve at the president's pleasure." Rather, there is an "arm's length" relationship with the White House. The AG does not take instructions from the president on what cases to pursue or not pursue. He is, as many have said before me, "the people's lawyer," who could be subject to investigating and prosecuting the president himself. It's kind of a "separation of powers" thing, which appears to be way beyond Trump's understanding. Consider this from Zack Beauchamp at Vox:
There is no way to sugarcoat this: At Sunday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump threatened to throw Hillary Clinton in jail if he wins the presidency. This — threatening to jail one’s political opponents — is how democratic norms die.
The exchange happened during a discussion of the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Trump began by decrying Clinton’s conduct — which, according to the FBI, was quite bad but not illegal. He then proposed appointing a special prosecutor to investigate her, and warned Clinton that, if he were president now, “you’d be in jail. . . . ”
In democracies, we respect people’s rights to disagree with each other. When one candidate wins a presidential election, the loser returns to private life or another government position. In some cases, former rivals become close friends. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 election, travel together and have spent decades jointly raising money to aid the victims of natural disasters.
They don’t get sent to jail, because we believe that political disagreement should be legal.
Donald Trump doesn’t seem to care about all that.
Here is more perspective from Ari Melber, of NBC News, showing that Trump truly is Nixonian:
Donald Trump's pledge Sunday night that he would order his attorney general to investigate Hillary Clinton, and his quip that she should "be in jail," is a direct breach of the tradition of nonpartisan rule of law. . . .
A president is not typically authorized to order specific criminal investigations of individuals, let alone a public pledge to investigate a political opponent. Former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted that President Richard Nixon's attorney general "courageously resigned" after being asked to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
When Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused, Nixon went on to fire several members of his cabinet in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre. . . . "
The FBI and Department of Justice have formally closed the inquiry into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state. So the notion of a new president seeking to force the re-opening of the case, because a new party is in office, is essentially unprecedented.
Trump is not the first person of "presidential timber" to run afoul of this notion. Barack Obama also screwed it up, although with a different twist. He made it clear that the DOJ, ironically under Eric Holder, was NOT to pursue apparent crimes of the George W. Bush administration. Krugman, appropriately, took Obama to task in a January 2009 article titled "Forgive and Forget." From that piece:
Now, it’s true that a serious investigation of Bush-era abuses would make Washington an uncomfortable place, both for those who abused power and those who acted as their enablers or apologists. And these people have a lot of friends. But the price of protecting their comfort would be high: If we whitewash the abuses of the past eight years, we’ll guarantee that they will happen again.
Meanwhile, about Mr. Obama: while it’s probably in his short-term political interests to forgive and forget, next week he’s going to swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s not a conditional oath to be honored only when it’s convenient.
And to protect and defend the Constitution, a president must do more than obey the Constitution himself; he must hold those who violate the Constitution accountable. So Mr. Obama should reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime. Consequences aside, that’s not a decision he has the right to make.
Krugman nailed it back then: Obama had no authority to block an investigation, and a President Trump would have no authority to order an investigation.
So, where does that leave us now? Trump's statements about women were nauseating, and they should have disqualified him as a presidential candidate among those who have not let race- and class-based fears cloud their better judgment. But his words on the stage last night in St. Louis were much worse than his videotaped statements from roughly a decade ago. Anyone who would consider voting for this "fascist of the future" should remove himself from the voters' rolls. Hillary Clinton is not the perfect presidential candidate, but she is not likely to turn the United States into a country we do not recognize. Donald Trump has made it clear he intends to do exactly that.
We had better be paying attention.