I was shocked this week to see that the Trump campaign is boasting about their candidate’s threat to send his opponent to jail if elected. Every American who values constitutional democracy should be extremely concerned when a top contender for President openly threatens that he will use the powers of government against his political opponents.
Of course, nobody can be above the law, but judgments of the law need to be kept separate from politics.
In a political debate and in political rallies, Donald Trump has flaunted his plan to use the power of the Presidency to launch a publicly funded prosecution with the goal of sending Hillary Clinton to jail. Does he expect her to respond by threatening that her White House would order a federal criminal investigation of his possible abuse of women or evasion of taxes? Given a choice, Americans should reject the candidate who would use the Justice Department as a political weapon against his enemies.
Please pause and consider the consequences after a President’s discretionary political decision has led to the imprisonment of someone who recently won the votes of millions of Americans. Thereafter, any other public figure who might be thinking about crossing the President on any matter would understand that such opposition could raise a very serious possibility of being put on the President’s next list of politically motivated federal prosecutions. If Trump could to it to Clinton after some sixty million Americans voted for her, you have to worry that he could do it to you, unless you can prove that you are innocent of everything. It would be prudent to avoid being put on the top of his political enemies list.
When everybody in American politics reaches this understanding, our Constitution will be effectively neutered. People who believe that Donald Trump would then use his supreme power to implement policies that they favor might hope for some short-term benefits from this outcome, but I hope that all voters would agree that we share a vastly greater long-term interest in preserving America’s constitutional system of government.
Perhaps some might think that my fears have run on too far, in this frenzied final month of our presidential election campaign. One could argue, however, that we should all have such fears in every presidential election. The powers of the Presidency are enormous, and it is extremely difficult to remove a President from those powers once he or she is elected; and so we have to be concerned about the possibility that a President could abuse these powers to undermine the limits on that our parchment Constitution has defined for this most powerful executive office. Perhaps it would be better to have a parliamentary system where the chief executive can be replaced any time, but for better or worse we Americans elect a President to hold the highest power in our country for four years.
The ultimate defense against the persistent danger of presidential dictatorship is to choose people whom we can trust to respect constitutional constraints. When a candidate has spent years exercising public power with clear respect for constitutional constraints, then we can have some confidence that he or she will continue to do so in the highest office of national power. For this fundamental reason, Americans usually elect presidents who have been governors or generals or influential senators.
The fact that Donald Trump has blamed Hillary Clinton for failing to change laws when she was a Senator (one among a hundred senators in a bicameral legislature subject to a presidential veto) certainly suggests some failure to appreciate the constitutional limits on what an elected official can do. On the other hand, we know that when Hillary Clinton was in the White House as First Lady, her husband never appointed a special prosecutor to imprison political opponents; he only appointed a special prosecutor to scrutinize his own compliance with the law.
In fact, any public official who can accomplish anything in our constitutional system must do so by working cooperatively with others who are potential political rivals. So electing presidents who have good track records in public service means electing people who are willing and able to reach across the aisle with respect for the rules of our constitutional political game. That is how we have kept our parchment Constitution in business all these years.
So let me suggest that Americans should resolve together to make this a general rule for the future: We should never support anyone for the Presidency who has not served responsibly in some other important public office. Enthusiasts for Donald Trump could urge him to run for governor somewhere before offering himself for President again, so that we can see what he would do with real power in government. It is not enough to be a genius in business. To maintain the integrity of our constitutional system, we must see what a candidate would do with the power of some lesser public office before we entrust the candidate with the highest office in the land.