March 9, 2012: A Justice Department memo clarifies a policy of avoiding interference in elections.

Eric Holder (Credit: public domain)

Eric Holder (Credit: public domain)

Eric Holder, the US attorney general from 2009 until 2015, writes a memo during the 2012 US presidential race outlining Justice Department policy on how to avoid interfering in elections. It states that department employees (which includes the FBI) “must be particularly sensitive to safeguarding the department’s reputation for fairness, neutrality, and nonpartisanship.” If an employee is “faced with a question regarding the timing of charges or overt investigative steps near the time of a primary or general election,” that person should contact the department’s public integrity section “for further guidance.”

The department has had such policies for decades, and they usually are restated every presidential election, but the memo adds clarity to them. (The Washington Post, 10/29/2016) (US Department of Justice, 3/9/2012)

This department policy will be tested in 2016, when the FBI reopens an investigation into Clinton’s emails just 11 days before Clinton is on the ballot for the US presidential election.

April 23, 2015: Petraeus is given a remarkably lenient plea bargain despite his serious security violations.

CIA Director David Petraeus (Credit: public domain)

CIA Director David Petraeus (Credit: public domain)

A federal judge sentences former CIA director and general David Petraeus to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine for giving his biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell, access to notebooks, classified information about official meetings, war strategy, and intelligence capabilities. Petraeus had been the CIA director from 2011 to 2012, but he was forced to quit due to the scandal. (The New York Times, 4/23/2015) 

The FBI seeks jail time for him, but doesn’t get it due to the plea bargain with the Justice Department. The New York Times will later report that FBI Director James Comey made the case to Attorney General Eric Holder that “Mr. Petraeus deserved to face strenuous charges. But the Justice Department overruled the FBI, and the department allowed Mr. Petraeus to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.” (The New York Times, 10/16/2015) The sentence is considered surprisingly light, given the evidence.

In 2016, the Washington Post will report, “FBI officials were angered by the deal and predicted it would affect the outcome of other cases involving classified information.” One former US law enforcement official will complain the deal “was handled so lightly for his offense there isn’t a whole lot you can do.” (The Washington Post, 3/2/2016)

July 1, 2016: Attorney General Loretta Lynch will accept whatever recommendations the FBI and career prosecutors give in the Clinton investigation.

Jonathan Capehart interviews U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1, 2016. (Credit: MSNBC)

Jonathan Capehart interviews Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Aspen, Colorado, on July 1, 2016. (Credit: MSNBC)

Attorney General Loretta Lynch says of the FBI’s Clinton investigation, “The recommendations will be reviewed by career supervisors in the Department of Justice and in the FBI, and by the FBI director, and then as is the common process, they present it to me and I fully expect to accept their recommendations.”

She doesn’t completely recuse herself from the process, saying that if she did that she wouldn’t even be able to see the FBI’s report. She says, “While I don’t have a role in those findings, in coming up with those findings or making those recommendations as to how to go forward, I will be briefed on it and I will be accepting their recommendations.” (Politico, 7/1/2016)

The New York Times comments, “Her decision removes the possibility that a political appointee will overrule investigators in the case.” The Justice Department supposedly had been moving towards the arrangement since at least April 2016, but a private meeting on June 27, 2016 between Lynch and Hillary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, “set off a political furor and made the decision all but inevitable.” (The New York Times, 7/1/2016)

Lynch claims that she had been planning to essentially recuse herself for months, although there is no evidence of this. But it seems clear her controversial meeting with Clinton played a role. She says of the meeting, “I certainly wouldn’t do it again. Because I think it has cast a shadow.” (Politico, 7/1/2016)

The Times says that the US attorney general often follows the recommendations of career prosecutors, so she “is keeping the regular process largely intact.” However, when the FBI, led by Comey, wanted to bring felony charges against former CIA Director David Petraeus in 2013, Lynch’s predecessor Eric Holder arranged a plea deal, reducing the charge to a misdemeanor and no jail time. The created a “deep and public rift” between the FBI and the Justice Department. (The New York Times, 7/1/2016)

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest says President Obama didn’t play a role in Lynch’s decision, nor did he offer input on her decision to make that announcement. (Politico, 7/1/2016)

October 9, 2016—October 13, 2016: Many, including Republicans, criticize Trump for threatening to put Clinton in jail.

Donald Trump creates a firestorm of responses after the second general election presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 9, 2016, due to his threat to Clinton that “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” and that she should “be in jail.”Trump’s remarks draw widespread and bipartisan condemnation for being un-American, as well as praise coming from some supporters.

Praise for Trump’s remarks is rare, except perhaps among his ordinary supporters:

    Frank Luntz's focus group at the presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri. (Credit: Fox News)

    Frank Luntz’s focus group at the presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri. (Credit: Fox News)

  • Republican pollster Frank Luntz hosts a group of 30 undecided voters at the debate. According to the results of the poll, Trump’s highest moment during the first half of the debate is when he vows to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton if he is elected president, as well as telling her she should be “ashamed of herself” for misleading the American public on the email issue. By the end of the debate, 21 participants tell Luntz that Trump’s performance had a positive impact on their voting choice going forward, while nine are impressed by Clinton’s performance.  (The Washington Examiner, 10/09/2016)
  • Kellyanne Conway talks with reporters following the presidential debate on October 9, 2016, in St Louis, Missouri.

  • Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway says, “That was a quip.” And regarding Trump’s threat to appoint a special prosecutor, Conway says only that he was “channeling the frustration” of voters.
  • Republican vice presidential nominee and Indiana Governor Mike Pence says this comment by his running mate Trump “was one of the better moments of the debate.” (Huffington Post, 10/10/2016)

The overwhelming majority of responses by legal experts and other politicians are critical of Trump. For instance:

  • Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Obama, writes on Twitter, “In the USA we do not threaten to jail political opponents. [Donald Trump] said he would. He is promising to abuse the power of the office.”
  • John Yoo (Credit: Berkley College)

    John Yoo (Credit: Berkley College)

  • John Yoo, a former Justice Department official under President George W. Bush who defended the US government’s use of torture, says that Trump “reminds me a lot of early Mussolini. . . . Very, disturbingly similar.” He also calls Trump’s promise to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Clinton is “a compounded stupidity,” because “if you are a Republican or a conservative, you think that special prosecutors are unconstitutional.” (The Washington Post, 10/12/2016)
  • Paul Charlton, a former federal prosecutor and US attorney under George W. Bush, states, “For Donald Trump to say he will have a special prosecutor appointed and to have tried and convicted her already and say she’d go to jail is wholly inappropriate and the kind of talk more befitting a Third World country than it is our democracy. … The Department of Justice isn’t a political tool and it ought not to be employed that way.”
  • Marc Jimenez (Credit: public domain)

    Marc Jimenez (Credit: public domain)

  • Marc Jimenez, a lawyer who served on the legal team backing Bush in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court showdown and also was a US attorney under George W. Bush, says: “This statement demonstrates the clear and present danger that Trump presents to our justice system. For a president to ‘instruct’ an attorney general to commence any prosecution or take any particular action is abhorrent. If it occurred, it would be a politically motivated decision that would cheapen the Department of Justice and contradict the core principle that prosecutors should never consider political factors in their charging or other decisions.”
  • Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who worked in George W. Bush’s White House, says: “A special prosecutor is supposed to investigate and isn’t appointed to put people in jail. You’re kind of skipping over an important step there. Can you imagine being the defendant prosecuted after being told the prosecutor was someone who was appointed to put you in jail, that had already foreordained that result? … It’s absurd and, if it were serious, it would be absolutely terrifying because it suggests there’s no due process.” (Politico, 10/10/2016)
  • Ari Fleischer (Credit: Jim Young / Reuters)

    Ari Fleischer (Credit: Jim Young / Reuters)

  • Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under George W. Bush and a supporter of Trump, writes on Twitter, “Winning candidates don’t threaten to put opponents in jail. Presidents don’t threaten prosecution of individuals. Trump is wrong on this.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/10/2016)
  • Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general for George W. Bush, says, “That to me is the… is a watershed event… that it’s the president of a different party. That makes it an entirely different kind of exercise in my view.” Mukasey spoke at the Republican convention in July 2016, but he says Trump’s suggestion “would make us look like a banana republic.” (NPR, 10/10/2016)
  • Paul Staniland (Credit: University of Chicago)

    Paul Staniland (Credit: University of Chicago)

  • Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says these kinds of attacks “can undermine the whole idea of democratic elections, where each side agrees that whoever won will then rule. … This is something that, as someone who studies the developing world and political violence, is kind of freaky. It kind of reminds me of Bangladesh. Thailand is like this, too. You have this real sense that whoever wins the election will go after the loser. Even if leaders succeed only rarely in using the state to punish their rivals, that can quickly spiral out of control, turning politics into a zero-sum game for control over the institutions of law and order.”
  • Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College in New York, says, “The rhetoric alone is extremely dangerous because it undermines people’s belief in our democratic institutions and process. Strongmen typically come to power in democracies, by telling citizens to distrust institutions and procedure — that what is needed is to burn it all down.”
  • Adrian LeBas (Credit: Wilson Center)

    Adrian LeBas (Credit: Wilson Center)

  • Adrienne LeBas, a political scientist at American University, says Trump’s comment is “a threat to the rule of law, a threat to the stability of our institutions, a threat to basic agreements that are necessary for democracy to function. For those of us who work on authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes, this sort of thing is just eerily familiar.” She calls this “the absolute personalization of power,” similar to what has been seen in “Zimbabwe, Togo, Ethiopia, cases like that, where there are explicit threats to imprison opponents.” (New York Times, 10/11/2016)
  • Twenty-three Republican former Justice Department officials sign a statement criticizing his jail threat and calling for Trump’s defeat in November, 2016.

October 30, 2016: Former Attorney General Eric Holder says that Comey made “a serious mistake.”

Eric Holder (Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press)

Eric Holder (Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press)

Eric Holder, US attorney general from 2009 to 2015, writes an editorial in the Washington Post with the title: “James Comey is a good man, but he made a serious mistake.”

He writes, “I am deeply concerned about FBI Director James B. Comey’s decision to write a vague letter to Congress about emails potentially connected to a matter of public, and political, interest. That decision was incorrect. It violated long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition. … Director Comey broke with these fundamental principles. I fear he has unintentionally and negatively affected public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI. And he has allowed — again without improper motive — misinformation to be spread by partisans with less pure intentions.“

Holder continues, “This controversy has its roots in the director’s July [2016] decision to hold a news conference announcing his recommendation that the Justice Department bring no charges against Hillary Clinton.” He says, given that Attorney General Loretta Lynch recused herself from the case, instead of having Comey “publicly share his professional recommendation, as well as his personal opinions” about the case in a “a stunning breach of protocol,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates could have announced the final decision of the department, without Comey’s extensive public commentary.

Holder concludes, “I served with Jim Comey and I know him well. This is a very difficult piece for me to write. He is a man of integrity and honor. I respect him. But good men make mistakes. In this instance, he has committed a serious error with potentially severe implications.” (The Washington Post, 10/31/2016)