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Not long into the presidential debate on Sunday, Donald Trump threatened to prosecute Hillary Clinton if he won the election. Here's an excerpt from their exchange:
TRUMP: “I didn't think I would say this,” he said, “but I'm going to, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it ... ”
CLINTON: “You know, it's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country."
TRUMP: “Because you would be in jail."
Technically, it is possible for Trump, if he were president, to instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor, according to David Mednicoff, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Mednicoff is also an attorney who specializes in constitutional law.
“The attorney general certainly could refuse to do this or resign,” says Mednicoff, “but it is within [Trump’s] power.”
Attorneys general have resigned in the past in the face of presidential overreach. In 1973, President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, Elliot Richardson, quit rather than obey Nixon's demand that he fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
But for Mednicoff, Trump’s statement Sunday night is just the most recent in a slew of statements that reveal a troubling pattern in how Trump thinks about leadership.
“He either doesn’t understand — or conceives of leadership in this very personalistic way. He really, also, in the debate itself continued to talk about how Hillary Clinton should’ve been able to do a variety of federal policies herself either as a senator or a cabinet official. This suggests a sense that an individual leader has control over the entire policy process and its outcome," says Mednicoff. "That is authoritarianism."
Whether it’s punishing your enemies or single-handedly dictating a policy that you think is right, that’s a way of thinking about governing that is fundamentally at odds with constitutional democracy, Mednicoff adds.
Trump's comment had echoes in authoritarian regimes around the world, where leaders have put their opponents in jail — places like Kenya, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Myanmar.
Sunday’s debate night is not the first time Mednicoff has heard Trump’s “personalistic” sense of leadership.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were effective and able to achieve difficult policy goals because they were good leaders. It seems like a pretty basic notion that a leader is somebody that tells everyone else what to do and doesn’t have to connect to any other checks and balances," Mednicoff explains. "Checks and balances is the entire design of the US Constitution — put in place specifically to not allow a leader to run roughshod over everyone else in the pursuit of a policy goal. So the pattern is problematic.”
It may just be Trump’s naïve view of leadership, says Mednicoff. He suggested Clinton could have responded in a better way.
“I would’ve responded ... ‘you keep talking about how one person ought to be able to do all these things. That’s a very dictatorial way of thinking about leadership. Are you, Donald Trump, a dictator?’”