President Trump now has even more incentive to win reelection next year — if he doesn’t, some of his potential successors say their administrations could bring criminal charges against him.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, one of the 2020 Democratic presidential-primary candidates and a former district attorney and California attorney general, said if Mr. Trump isn’t impeached and removed from office she would want the Justice Department to pursue criminal obstruction of justice charges against him.
“I believe that they would have no choice and that they should, yes,” Ms. Harris told NPR in an interview published Wednesday.
She said she’s seen prosecutions of cases on “much less evidence” than what special counsel Robert Mueller outlined in his report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“Everyone should be held accountable, and the president is not above the law,” Ms. Harris said.
She had said last month there needs to be transparency and accountability, when asked at an MSNBC town hall if she would pursue legal action against Mr. Trump and his Cabinet after they leave office for offenses incurred against the American public.
“There is a clear track record of this president and members of his administration obstructing justice,” she said then. “So, there is a lot of work to do and I plan on seeing it through.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, another 2020 Democratic contender, said this week he would at least be open to pursuing charges against Mr. Trump after he leaves office — but said the decisions would rest with prosecutors.
“I would want my Justice Department, any future administration’s Justice Department, to follow the facts and the truth and to make sure at the end of the day that there is accountability and justice,” Mr. O’Rourke said on ABC’s “This Week.”
That’s how the system works anyway, said Steven J. Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor and former federal prosecutor.
“It would be a bit unusual for someone to say in advance they will definitely prosecute this person for this crime,” Mr. Mulroy said.
Mr. Trump himself is no stranger to encouraging prosecutions. During the 2016 campaign he led “lock her up!” chants from supporters who wanted to see presidential-election opponent Hillary Clinton criminally charged.
But after winning the election, Mr. Trump said he wasn’t interested in pursuing charges, saying that he didn’t want to “hurt the Clintons” and that such a move would divide the country.
“It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about,” Mr. Trump told The New York Times in November 2016.
Mr. Mulroy said Mr. Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 campaign was “particularly inappropriate,” since the issue had been investigated and the Justice Department determined there should not be charges brought against Mrs. Clinton.
“It’s particularly sensitive in a democracy to say, ‘if I win I’m going to throw my opponent in jail.’ That’s the kind of stuff we see in banana republics,” he said. “[Harris is] saying, I think it would be appropriate for the DOJ to do that. That doesn’t mean she’s not going to let the DOJ process unfold.”
The Justice Department has already made that determination. Attorney General William Barr says there’s no winnable case against Mr. Trump — similar to the logic the FBI and then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch used to decide not to charge Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Mulroy, though, said Mr. Trump’s case is complicated because he’s a sitting president and Justice Department policy prevents a president from being charged.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren said last month that if elected president, she would appoint an assistant attorney general who would reverse that policy.
“If he were any other person in the United States, based on what’s documented in that report, he would be carried out in handcuffs,” the Massachusetts Democrat said at an MSNBC town hall meeting last week.
Hundreds of former federal prosecutors have signed onto an open letter saying that if Mr. Trump was a private individual, Mr. Mueller’s report would result in “multiple felony charges” for obstruction of justice.
About 7-in-10 U.S. voters disagreed with the no-charges policy, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, which found Americans say a president should face legal jeopardy for wrongdoing, even while in office.
Voters were split, though, on whether Mr. Trump has actually committed crimes while in office.
But should Mr. Trump win reelection, the statute of limitations for charging him would run out, former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers told CNN last month.
“If he leaves office in 2020 I would like to see him charged, actually,” she said on CNN. “This is an easily provable case.”
That might be easier said than done.
After President Obama took office in 2009, his administration disappointed some liberal activists by saying he would not pursue charges against former George W. Bush administration officials for their roles in developing enhanced interrogation techniques used on some terror suspects.
“The view often looks different from the chair, once you’re in the chair,” Mr. Mulroy said.
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