ST. LOUIS ― Donald Trump’s overt threat Sunday night to put Hillary Clinton behind bars if he is elected president ― an unprecedented declaration in modern U.S. politics ― was met with applause by his top campaign surrogates.
“That was classic Donald Trump,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said after the debate. “He does want a special prosecutor because these emails were deleted.”
During the debate at Washington University, Trump said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton for her use of a personal email account while she was secretary of state. She responded by expressing regret for doing so, and urged viewers to check out the facts about her emails on her campaign website.
“Last time, at the first debate, we had millions of people fact-checking. So I expect we’ll have millions more fact-checking because, you know, it is, it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she said.
Trump responded with a jarring put-down.
“Because you would be in jail,” he said to Clinton.
The FBI and Department of Justice formally closed the inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server earlier this year. Though they said she was careless in the way she handled classified information, neither FBI Director James Comey nor Attorney General Loretta Lynch moved forward to bring charges.
Reacting to the moment in the debate “spin room,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believed a special prosecutor “might be justified” in this case. But he pushed back against the notion that Trump could unilaterally put Clinton behind bars, noting a special prosecutor would be independent of the executive branch.
“I liked that he said a special prosecutor,” Sessions told reporters. “So I think one might be justified, we’ll just have to see about that. I haven’t studied it. But he didn’t say he was going to appoint a prosecutor to bring charges. He just said a special prosecutor to investigate them. That would be an independent prosecutor in the special prosecutor system, not one picked by the president.”
Trump’s supporters repeat their “lock her up” chant at nearly every one of his campaign rallies. After modestly dismissing it earlier this summer, Trump in July embraced the rhetoric ― more frequently associated with dictators who jail political opponents ― by telling his supporters he was “starting to agree” with them. (He has even said he would nominate Supreme Court justices who “would look very seriously at her email disaster.”)
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who served as a U.S. Attorney, took a similar tack on the campaign trail. In a scrum with reporters after the debate, he too cheered the jail threat.
“Destroying 33,000 emails after you get a federal subpoena is called a federal crime. When he said you can go to jail for that, nobody laughed ― because they all thought it was true,” Giuliani said with a chuckle.
Trump’s campaign seemed to delight in the retort. After the debate, his social media team posted the quote with an easily sharable photo.
Clinton’s campaign dismissed the threat, arguing Trump was simply trying to appease his voting base.
“It’s just another incoherent baseless attack that he throws at her,” Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri told HuffPost after the debate. “He’s not winning anyone over with those kinds of attacks.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, however, blasted Trump on Twitter. He noted that President Richard Nixon’s attorney general resigned after being asked to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.