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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: If reelected, Trump’s likely to ramp up political prosecutions of opponents

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 22, 2020

Not long after federal authorities broke up an extremist plot to kidnap or kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom President Donald Trump regularly denounces, a Trump rally began chanting, “Lock her up.”

Did President Trump stop them? Of course not. His response was, “Lock them all up,” a reference not only to Whitmer but to Hillary Clinton and the Bidens. When asked about his comments, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, told CNN, “He was having fun at a Trump rally.”

Some joke.

More and more, Trump appears ready to follow the lead of autocratic leaders, in Poland, Turkey, Belarus and Russia, who try to silence those who oppose him. He can’t pull a Vladimir Putin and freely jail or poison his “enemies,” or beat and torture them like Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

But should he be re-elected, Trump has made clear he wants federal prosecutors to send his political opponents to jail.

Moreover, Trump’s constant denunciations of those who offend him, at rallies and on Twitter, have encouraged his followers to take matters into their own hands.

His repeated attacks against the nation’s top epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci, whom he labeled a “disaster” and an “idiot,” led to so many death threats that Fauci has a federal security detail.

The men of the Wolverine Watchmen militia who tried to harm Whitmer clearly thought they were following Trump’s call to “Liberate Michigan” from Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions. And Trump’s response to the kidnapping was to say she’d done a “terrible job.”

The list of hate crimes connected to those who parroted Trump’s white nationalist rhetoric is long, including Cesar Sayoc’s pipe bombs sent to Democratic leaders, and a Walmart attack in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. Yet, Trump’s long history of winking and nodding at white supremacists continues. He recently told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by” for who knows what.

Most disgusting is the president’s virtual endorsement of the conspiracy cult QAnon _ which he claims to know nothing about, but praises as people who “love our country.” This is a group that the FBI labels a domestic terror threat. It promotes a mad thesis about a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals led by Democrats and Jews. Yet, Trump’s seal of approval – “They are very much against pedophilia,” he said – has led many GOP supporters to embrace the cult, including GOP candidates for Congress.

While the FBI struggles to fight domestic terrorist acts, Trump encourages armed followers eager to commit them. The Trump administration has cut funds to investigate far-right terrorism at home.

I’ve been surprised that one of the journalists Trump has publicly castigated as “enemies of the people” has not been taken out by a Trumpist. Last month, Trump mocked CNN anchor Ali Velshi for getting hit with a rubber bullet, presumably from the police, but it could just as well have come from a white nationalist fan.

So far, however, the U.S. legal system still stands as a barrier to the kind of legal persecution on fake charges that is so common in autocratic countries. In Poland, for example, a once-democratic government that is becoming less so, a prominent lawyer and outspoken critic of the government was detained on accusations of money laundering. Polish opposition leaders claimed the arrest was meant to distract the public from anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

In Russia, political arrests of opposition leaders are usually based on false charges of tax evasion. In Turkey, journalists are sometimes arrested on charges of abetting terrorism (and newspapers closed down by libel charges).

Having installed a loyal follower, William Barr, as attorney general, Trump appears eager to concoct a similar set of arrests here.

The president and his minions are desperately trolling, in Ukraine, from Russian agents, and elsewhere, for charges he can bring against Joe Biden and his son Hunter, labeling the former vice president “a criminal.”

He still wants to lock Clinton up. He’s said that John Kerry “should be prosecuted.” He’s accused Adam Schiff of “treason.” He said former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and former FBI director James Comey belong “in jail.”

Should Trump win again, this is more than an empty threat.

The president has been lashing out at Barr for not bringing indictments in Justice Department investigations of the origins of the Russia probe. Earlier this month, in a tweet, he demanded that Barr immediately arrest and jail former President Barack Obama, Biden and Clinton.

In a second term, Trump could appoint an even more compliant ally to head the Justice Department, and a sycophant to direct the FBI. In control of the Supreme Court and increasingly appellate courts, he would be in a position to persecute his “foes.”

Take this threat seriously, voters. The United States is not Poland, Turkey, Belarus or Russia, nor should any president be allowed to push the country in that direction. Another reason to vote autocrat-wannabe Trump out.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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