At the presidential debate Sunday night, Donald Trump came right out and said that if he becomes president, he’ll use the Department of Justice to take down his political opponent. It was an astonishingly open admission of his disregard for our legal system and fundamental constitutional principles. But it wasn’t even the scariest indication in the last week that Trump thinks he’s running to be America’s dictator rather the president of a nation of laws.
In response to Hillary Clinton’s rather banal statement that Trump owes Barack Obama an apology for claiming he wasn’t an American citizen for years, Trump responded with a string of non-sequiturs that ended with a promise to get a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton for using a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state. Clinton has already been the subject of a massive FBI investigation that ended with both a revered Republican FBI director and a Democratic attorney general concluding there was no case against her. But if he were president, Trump told Clinton, “you’d be in jail.”
As I have explained previously, those who think what Clinton did should be illegal should be looking to amend the law to make it illegal. We don’t prosecute people for things we haven’t outlawed.
But Trump thinks Clinton should be locked up because “people in this country are furious,” and “it’s a disgrace.” Those are the words of an aspiring dictator, not someone who respects the fundamental principle that the state can’t deprive a person of their freedom without being able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they broke a law.
Trump made a further attack on our basic legal protections at the debate when he tried to shame Clinton for doing her job when she was an attorney appointed by a judge to represent an alleged rapist. We have an “adversarial” legal system in this country, in which we expect justice to be served by opposing sides battling over the facts or negotiating the punishment. Whether the truth generally prevails in our adversarial system, or whether “inquisitorial” systems – in which everyone has an obligation to share what they know, and the goal is finding an appropriate punishment – serve justice better than our all-or-nothing approach is irrelevant. The system we have, and have always had, requires protection of defendants’ constitutional right not to incriminate themselves and right to an attorney. Defense attorneys are obligated to vigorously represent the interests of their clients – even if they are factually guilty. Trump’s debate attack on Clinton for representing her client is an attack on the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.
But Trump’s most shocking rejection of our Constitution and basic principles of fairness went largely unnoticed last week. In a statement to CNN, he doubled down on his claims regarding the guilt of the Central Park Five – the black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of a 1989 rape and imprisoned for years before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Trump has expressed pride in how politically incorrect it was for him to attack the settlement they received from the city for depriving them of their freedom for years.
But Trump’s involvement in the case goes back even further. Two weeks after their arrest, he responded by taking out full-page ads in multiple newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated – so the teens could be executed, it was implied – and for more police, mocking the idea that police brutality was a problem. Trump likely bears some blame for their wrongful conviction, because he used his money and influence to exacerbate the lynch mob mentality in New York at the time and to poison the jury pool with his presumption of guilt.
The teens were found guilty despite the fact that DNA found on the victim didn’t match any of them. After the actual perpetrator admitted to the crime years later, the five were exonerated, and the city eventually compensated them for the injustice they’d experienced. Trump wrote an op-ed criticizing the $41 million settlement in which he seemed to imply that even if they were innocent, they shouldn’t have received any money because they “do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
It was a stunning display of Trump’s racism and autocratic disdain for the law. Not depriving innocent people of their freedom is the most basic responsibility of government. But Trump believes he has the right to say who is or isn’t guilty, facts and law be damned. It’s no big deal if people he considers undesirable are deprived of their freedom. In Trump’s world, black lives don’t matter, and political opponents should be punished.
Meanwhile, Trump has been completely dismissive of questioning about whether he has sexual assaulted women, despite being caught on tape bragging that he has. Trump doesn’t think the law applies to him. Completely unrepentant about that fact that five innocent teenagers would have been executed if he’d had his way, Trump tells us that only certain kinds of people can be criminals. And he’s the guy to tell us who they are.
Watch WTF moments from the off-the-rails second presidential debate.