Backpedaling, or just keeping options open? During the campaign, Donald Trump demanded that Hillary Clinton get prosecuted for her exposure of classified information and for her corruption, and said in his administration she’d be headed to jail. Now that he’s won, will Trump appoint a special prosecutor to pursue Hillary? Trump tells 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl that he wants to focus on policy, but he hasn’t made up his mind yet about prosecuting Hillary.
Supporters and critics howled that Trump had reneged on a promise, but this looks more like a wait-and-see position — and there are a couple of good reasons to adopt it:
Lesley Stahl: Are you going to ask for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton over her emails? And are you, as you had said to her face, going to try and put her in jail?
Donald Trump: Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to think about it. Um, I feel that I want to focus on jobs, I want to focus on healthcare, I want to focus on the border and immigration and doing a really great immigration bill. We want to have a great immigration bill. And I want to focus on all of these other things that we’ve been talking about.
Lesley Stahl: You– you know, you–
Donald Trump: And get the country straightened away.
Lesley Stahl: You called her “crooked Hillary,” said you wanted to get in jail, your people in your audiences kept saying, “Lock em’ up.”
Donald Trump: Yeah. She did–
Lesley Stahl: Do you—
Donald Trump: She did some bad things, I mean she did some bad things–
Lesley Stahl: I know, but a special prosecutor? You think you might…
Donald Trump: I don’t want to hurt them. I don’t want to hurt them. They’re, they’re good people. I don’t want to hurt them. And I will give you a very, very good and definitive answer the next time we do 60 Minutes together.
Trump hurt Hillary plenty just by winning the election. It reminded me of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Khan refuses to take the bait and go after Kirk. “I’ve done far worse than kill you,” Khan replies. “I’ve hurt you, and I wish to go on hurting you.” (That sounds so much better when Ricardo Montalban says it.) Just being in office will “hurt” the Clintons, especially their influence-peddling business at the Clinton Foundation. Calling them “good people” that he doesn’t want to hurt might reflect his true state of mind, or might just be a position he takes to remove a potential personal-vendetta motivation down the road if he does act.
Why not declare an intent to appoint a special prosecutor now? For one, it might not be necessary. The FBI is still probing the Clinton Foundation and alleged pay-to-play operations with the State Department. It’s possible that they will recommend action to the Department of Justice under Trump’s new Attorney General, whomever that might be. That may not get determined until months into the new administration, so it doesn’t make much sense to commit to a special prosecutor at the moment.
A bigger issue is the need to get through the transition. Committing to appoint a special prosecutor now would probably end or seriously curtail cooperation with the outgoing Barack Obama administration, which would definitely be tarnished by any prosecution. Trump has 66 days until inauguration to complete that transition and to get ready to govern on Day One. That’s a short window for the top priority, and he can afford to remain non-committal for now. Also, if Trump does plan to prosecute Hillary, tipping his hand now might force Barack Obama into issuing a pardon. Obama might do it anyway, but ambiguity will at least keep the current administration guessing.
Still, I’d guess that the most likely outcome is that Trump accepts whatever determination his new Attorney General reaches on the Clintons and her coterie rather than opting for a special prosecutor on his own. The new AG might recommend that action, or could pursue prosecution directly, as well as close up the probes with no action at all. Look to the AG appointment to read those tea leaves; if it’s Chris Christie, nothing happens, but Rudy Giuliani might be more inclined to press the matter.