October 9, 2016: Trump tells Clinton he would appoint a special prosecutor to look into her use of a private email server, and says he would put her in jail.

Just two days after Wikileaks releases their first batch of hacked emails from Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, there is a presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri, and it includes a contentious exchange between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server while she is secretary of state.

Clinton and Trump spar at a presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016. (Credit: John Locher / The Associated Press)

Clinton and Trump spar at a presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016. (Credit: John Locher / The Associated Press)

He says, “I think the one that you should really be apologizing for and the thing that you should be apologizing for are the 33,000 emails that you deleted, and that you acid washed, and then the two boxes of emails and other things last week that were taken from an office and are now missing. And I’ll tell you what. I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.”

He continues, “When I speak, I go out and speak, the people of this country are furious. In my opinion, the people that have been long-term workers at the FBI are furious. There has never been anything like this, where emails… and you get a subpoena, you get a subpoena, and after getting the subpoena, you delete 33,000 emails, and then you acid wash them or bleach them, as you would say, very expensive process. So we’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what? People have been… their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done. And it’s a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Clinton responds, “Everything he just said is absolutely false, but I’m not surprised.”

Trump asks, “Oh really?”

Clinton gives a long response which ends with the comment, “It’s good that somebody with the temperament of Donald Trump is not running this country.”

Trump immediately shoots back: “Because you’d be in jail.”
Anderson Cooper (left) and Martha Raddatz are the presidential debate moderators at Washington University in St. Louis on October 9, 2016. (Credit: Washington University)

Anderson Cooper (left) and Martha Raddatz are the presidential debate moderators at Washington University in St. Louis, on October 9, 2016. (Credit: Washington University)

Martha Raddatz follows up with a question for Clinton, “And Secretary Clinton, I do want to follow-up on e-mails. You’ve said your handling of your e-mails was a mistake, you’ve disagreed with the FBI Director James Comey calling your handling of classified information “extremely careless”. The FBI said there were 110 classified e-mails which were exchanged, eight of which were top secret and it was possible hostile actors did gain access to those e-mails. You don’t call that extremely careless?”

Clinton responds,… “I take classified materials very seriously and always have. When I was on the Senate Armed Services Committee, I was privy to a lot of classified material. Obviously, as secretary of state I had some of the most important secrets that we possess, such as going after Bin Laden. So, I am very committed to taking classified information seriously and as I said, there is no evidence that any classified information ended up in the wrong hands.”

Trump answers, again with the suggestion that Hillary would be in jail if she were anyone else, … “If you did that in the private sector, you’d be put in jail, let alone after getting a subpoena from the United States Congress.” (The Hill, 10/9/2016) (The New York Times, 10/9/2016)

Trump’s comments draw many reactions. His vice presidential candidate Mike Pence approves. However, many others, including Republicans, react negatively. That includes 23 former Republican Justicee Department officials, who write a letter condemning the comments.

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.