One of the ugliest, and most frightening episodes of the second debates was when Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton that when he becomes President, she will end up in jail. This was consistent with what has occurred throughout this campaign where unlike any other election in recent memory, the supporters of one candidate, and the candidate himself, have frequently and routinely called for a major candidate to be imprisoned. It has become almost an article of faith, emphasis on faith rather than data or findings, among Trump supporters that Clinton is a criminal. This is disturbing not only because the notion that Hillary Clinton should be in jail is the stuff of right wing conspiracy theorists and Tea Party extremists, but because imprisoning political opponents is the kind of thing done by authoritarian leaders or transitional governments where widespread human rights abuses have been committed by the previous regime. The US fits neither of those categories. It is no exaggeration to say that threats like those Trump made pose a grave and immediate danger to the social fabric of our country as well to our democracy.
There is another light in which Trump’s threat can be seen, particularly given that one of the major themes of Trump’s campaign has been the playground taunt “I know you are, but what am I.” For this purpose it is important to remember that one of Donald Trump’s advisors for several months was Paul Manafort, a man who has a great deal of experience in politics and campaigns in foreign countries, most memorably Ukraine. In Ukraine, and other countries where corruption is rampant, a primary reason people run for office is to get immunity from prosecution.
This is relevant because as the campaign progressed it is becoming clear that if Trump were not running for office, but had drawn the attention of a good investigative reporter, or an ambitious Attorney General, like, for example, New York’s whip smart, hard-working and progressive Eric Schnederman, he would very likely be facing substantial civil, and possibly criminal charges for how he used his charity, the con that was Trump University, nonpayment to many vendors and most significantly, a decades long history of sexual assault of various kinds.
It is, naturally, much less likely that anybody outside of his reality television fans and a few gossip and celebrity bloggers would have cared much about Donald Trump if he had not run for President. It is very possible that the behavior and actions that have become campaign issues, and possible legal ones, would have remained unknown to most of the public and all potential prosecutors, but given the scope and duration of Trump’s misdoings that could hardly be taken for granted. Even in today’s media climate where investigative reporting is rarely sufficiently funded, bringing down Trump would have been a career making story for many journalists. For Trump then, the best way to guarantee avoiding real consequences for his actions was to win immunity from prosecution.
By running for President, Trump has done just that. In the very likely event that he loses the election, there is almost no way that he will be faced with any criminal charges, not because there is no evidence, but because it would be viewed as too political. Hillary Clinton, despite what she may feel about Donald Trump on a personal level, is way too experienced and smart to spend any of her political capital, energy or time, seeking to bring Donald Trump to justice. If Clinton were to instruct her Attorney General to investigate any of the allegations against Trump, some of which are quite serious, the cries of partisanship and hypocrisy would be loud and dominate political discourse, thus making it difficult for Clinton to do anything else with her presidency. The justified reactions to Trump’s threat in the last debate, ironically, are the very thing that will protect him from prosecution from crimes that appear more real and more widespread almost with every passing day. This may not be justice, but it may be the best thing for our country.
It is almost impossible to know whether or not this was a deliberate strategy on the part of Trump or the people who have been around him at various times during the campaign. It is difficult to imagine that Trump and his legal team sat down in early 2015 and came up with a presidential campaign as a way to avoid a battery of legal problems of which they may or may not have been fully aware. Nonetheless, it is apparent that one of the happy outcomes of this campaign for Trump is that he will not have to answer for his behavior in a court of law.