At Sunday’s presidential debate, Donald Trump brought “Lock her up!” to its widest stage yet.
The phrase is bellowed at Trump rallies. It echoed at the Republican convention in July. The “her” is the first female major-party nominee for president, Hillary Clinton. The ask? Not just that she lose, but that she be jailed — a shocking move that threatens principles of democracy.
Trump promised Sunday that if elected president, he will ask his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the “situation” of Clinton’s private email server. Clinton replied that she was glad a man of Trump’s temperament wasn’t “in charge of the law in our country.” And then he shot back, “Because you’d be in jail.” It was an outrageous claim in an embarrassing debate not worthy of the tone or quality of a presidential forum.
He had some effective moments, such as his challenges to Clinton on her 33,000 deleted emails and her Obamacare defense. Clinton didn’t have an impressive night, but she also didn’t drag the event into the gutter.
That’s where Trump went to hold his base — to steady a campaign reeling after the release of a 2005 tape last week caught him boasting of sexual assault. Then he gave prominent seats at the debate to three women who have accused Bill Clinton of varying degrees of sexual assault. At worst, this is a frightening window into a mind that believes the only way to defeat a female is to degrade her.
The macho candidate also whined about the moderators not giving him enough time, though he received a minute more than his opponent. Whatever the politics of his strategy, most alarming were Trump’s comtemptuous comments about jailing Clinton.
The attorney general can appoint a special prosecutor in cases of conflict of interest for the Department of Justice or other “extraordinary circumstances.” A Trump administration launching a politically motivated investigation of a rival would be “extraordinary” only in its uniqueness. After the FBI investigated Clinton’s emails, Director James Comey said she had been “extremely careless,” but recommended no charges. Since, Trump has insinuated that Comey, who has worked under presidents from both parties, can’t be trusted to do a fair job.
That’s just not true, and Trump insisting otherwise delegitimizes the judicial process. He does the same by viewing the attorney general’s office solely as a personal extension of presidential power — and by planning to use that power against rivals. He traffics in dangerous delegitimization by repeatedly suggesting that should he lose, then the election must have been rigged. Trump’s view of government is his view of life — anything or anyone who disagrees with him is against him and must be removed at any cost.
Trump won’t get what he perceives as the jailer’s keys whatever happens next month, but his supporters won’t be going away. There is much in Washington that needs fixing, but undermining our system of justice, even suggesting political enemies can be jailed, is just wrong.
Voters’ faith or lack of it in the shared bedrock of our democracy won’t be on the ballot, but win or lose, that’s what’s at stake.
— The editorial board