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To Trump, many critics are criminals and many foes are felons

NBC News logo NBC News 5/15/2020 Steve Benen
Donald Trump sitting on a table: Image: President Donald Trump looks on he as meets with Colorado Governor Jared Polis and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum in the Cabinet Room of the White House © Doug Mills Image: President Donald Trump looks on he as meets with Colorado Governor Jared Polis and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum in the Cabinet Room of the White House

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump's latest interview with Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo touched on Michael Flynn, the disgraced former foreign agent the president tapped to serve as White House national security advisor. For reasons no one seems to coherently explain, the right is convinced there was something nefarious about the investigation into Flynn's crimes.

But Trump isn't just defending his political ally; he's insisting that the actual crimes were committed by others. This was the Republican's pitch to the conservative host:

"It was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. If I were a Democrat instead of a Republican, I think everybody would have been in jail a long time ago. And I'm talking with 50-year sentences. It is a disgrace what's happened.... And people should be going to jail for this stuff. And hopefully a lot of people are going to have to pay."

People should be going to jail for this stuff. What "stuff"? What "crime"? Why would anyone get "50-year sentences"? Trump has no idea, but he's certain he sees criminals lurking in every corner.

In the same interview, as part of the same exchange, the president added, "This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt. And we caught them. We caught them."

Trump has never said what it is he thinks he's "caught" Barack Obama and Joe Biden doing, but we're nevertheless left with an awkward dynamic that helps define the president's approach to politics: Trump doesn't want to defeat his opponents; he wants to prosecute them.

In 2016, the then-Republican presidential nominee spent months demanding that Hillary Clinton be incarcerated over her email protocols. Many of his followers still routinely chant, "Lock her up!" for no particular reason.

Once in the White House, Trump became even more aggressive on this front, with the Washington Post reporting this week, "Since taking office, Trump has casually accused multiple people of treason, ranging from former FBI director James B. Comey to the American media. He has regularly accused people of perjury or mishandling classified information, usually without evidence."

On the surface, it's extraordinary that we have a sitting American president who's publicly called for criminal prosecutions of his former presidential rival, his presidential predecessor, and his current presidential rival. There's nothing comparable to such a posture at any point in the American tradition.

But Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden can take some comfort in the fact that they're hardly alone. Trump has called for criminal investigations into former Secretary of State John Kerry. And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). And Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). And former FBI Director James Comey.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tore a copy of the president's recent State of the Union address, Trump didn't just whine incessantly about her having hurt his feelings, he also falsely insisted Pelosi "broke the law."

This week, the president even suggested an MSNBC host might be guilty of murder -- which ordinarily might have caused a stir, since American presidents don't usually throw around homicide allegations casually, but which was largely ignored because many of us have come to understand that this is what life is like during Trump's time in office.

Given the fact that Trump has faced a criminal investigation, may yet face legal jeopardy if he loses re-election in the fall, and has surrounded himself with a variety of allies who've faced felony charges, the irony of his strange accusations appears lost on him.


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