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:
- 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)
- 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, 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, 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, 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, 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.”
- 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.