Would a reelected Trump prosecute his opponents? He already tried.

It was fitting that Donald Trump’s most recent suggestion that he would target his political opponents if reelected came during a Newsmax interview with host Greg Kelly. Kelly is the son of former New York police commissioner Ray Kelly, and his show frequently adopts the red-white-and-blue-lives-matter rhetoric that’s ubiquitous among Trump supporters.

Trump’s support is strong with police and their families but also overlaps significantly with the sort of performative support for the police that yields blue-striped Punisher stickers on the backs of cars. That enthusiasm is often less about public servants protecting the common good than it is about state actors who can and at times do apply it unequally, particularly against those with whom the supporter disagrees.

Greg Kelly’s overt Trumpism blends those two flavors of support. Like Trump, he manifests the second impulse by being disdainful of law enforcement officials who have obtained indictments against the former president. Back the blue, but not against the red.

In the interview Tuesday evening, Kelly suggested to Trump that perhaps his conviction on felony charges in New York last week might prove to be a boon. Trump pivoted to discussing how enticing it would be for him to target his opponents, should he return to the White House.

“It’s a terrible precedent for our country,” Trump suggested. “Does that mean the next president does it to them? That’s really the question.”

After an aside, he isolated the example of Hillary Clinton, who was a frequent target of calls for prosecution during the 2016 campaign.

“With, like, as an example, Hillary, with the hammering of her cellphones and all of the things she did,” he said, making a reference to one of his shorthand disparagements of his former opponent. “But wouldn’t it be terrible to throw the president’s wife and the former secretary of state — think of it, the former secretary of state but the president’s wife into jail, wouldn’t that be a terrible thing? But they want to do it. So, it’s a terrible, terrible path that they’re leading us to. And it’s very possible that it’s going to have to happen to them.”

He then suggested that it was only his restraint that kept Clinton from being prosecuted while he was president.

“Some people said I should have done it,” he said, “Would have been very easy to do it. But I thought it would be a terrible precedent for our country.”

This is nonsense. Trump’s administration did attempt to effect legal retribution against his opponents, including Clinton. It wasn’t that he didn’t try, it was that it wasn’t “very easy” to do.

Trump came into office railing against the intelligence community and the FBI because of the investigation into Russian interference that was publicly reported soon after he won the 2016 election. He fired FBI Director James B. Comey in an explicit effort to kneecap that probe, resulting in the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller ultimately determined that there were links between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors, and that the campaign embraced Russia’s assistance, but that there was no coordination that violated the law.

But from the outset — even before Mueller was appointed — Trump decided this was all a “witch hunt.” He’d wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to uproot it, but Sessions recused himself from decisions related to the probe. This was repeatedly frustrating to Trump, who wanted Sessions to reverse his recusal “so that Sessions could direct the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute Hillary Clinton,” as Sessions told Mueller’s investigators.

After the 2018 election, Sessions was booted and, a few months later, William P. Barr was brought in. Barr had voluntarily written a letter to Trump criticizing the Mueller probe before his appointment; he spent much of the rest of Trump’s term attempting to prove it had been a political hit job.

He tasked U.S. Attorney John Durham — eventually elevated to a special counsel after Trump lost his reelection bid — to suss out the real triggers for the Russia investigation. Durham made no significant progress in this regard, but he did spend a great deal of energy attempting to position Clinton as a central trigger for the probe.

The idea was that the Clinton campaign’s elevation of questions about Trump’s links to Russia (including a quickly discredited rumor involving a Russian bank) was the point of origin for such questions. The reality, as Mueller established and as a report from the Justice Department inspector general reinforced, was that there were numerous links between Trump’s team and Russia and that there was an obvious effort by Russia to upend the election. Durham brought charges against an attorney linked to Clinton. The attorney was acquitted.

Last year, the New York Times’s Charlie Savage explained that the pivot to focusing on Clinton came only after Durham was unable to uncover nefarious intent on the part of the FBI.

“By keeping the investigation going,” Savage wrote, “Mr. Barr initially appeased Mr. Trump, who, as Mr. Barr recounted in his memoir, was angry about the lack of charges as the 2020 election neared.”

The evidence wasn’t there — and then they ran out of time.

Should Trump be reelected, there will be several factors that would make investigations like the one run by Barr and Durham more common.

The first is that Trump won’t have a reelection bid to consider. There will be no accountability; he knows, too, that he won’t be impeached and removed from office for his actions. He knows he has four years and will not want to wait.

He’ll also almost certainly have an attorney general selected specifically for their willingness to engage in this sort of targeting. No Sessions wasting two years respecting the boundaries of his position. And, perhaps, fewer people within the Justice Department standing in the way, if his plans for uprooting the federal bureaucracy come to fruition.

Trump would also enter office with broad support among his allies and the right-wing media for launching precisely these sorts of probes. The Washington Post on Tuesday detailed how his allies hope to exact revenge against Trump’s prosecutors. The New York Times on Wednesday listed prominent voices calling for a re-inaugurated President Trump to use federal power against his opponents. Many of them use the language Trump presented to Kelly: Look what you made us do. But, again, Trump had already tried to do it — perhaps along multiple avenues.

This is not in conflict with the fervency with which Trump and his allies demand support for law enforcement. It is the application of state power against those outside of the in-group. This distinction is why pro-Trump figures adopted the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter — the movement that energized the right’s pro-police position — against the FBI after the search at Mar-a-Lago. Defund the police for systemic abuses against Black people? No. Defund the bureau for investigating Trump? Obviously.

The question isn’t whether Trump would attempt to use the power of the federal government against his opponents. It’s whether he would succeed, if he could dig up something that stuck. His allies in the House already tried to run this play against President Biden without luck. Maybe President Trump and his attorney general and loyal investigators would fare better. At the very least, they’d be able to make his opponents’ lives very uncomfortable, a victory on its own.


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