During one of his debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the former secretary of state if he were elected. “Lock her up!” remains a popular cheer at his campaign-style rallies.
Trump’s loose talk about turning the Justice Department against his political opponents is one of his most outrageous norm violations. Given that fact, you would think Democrats hoping to succeed him would strive not to give the impression that they, too, would expect their Justice Department to target political opponents. But Sen. Kamala Harris doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.
Earlier this month, in an interview with NPR, the junior senator from California was asked whether, in light of her support for impeachment proceedings against Trump, she would want the Department of Justice “to go forward with those obstruction of justice charges” once the president was out of office.
Harris answered: “I believe that they would have no choice and that they should, yes. There has to be accountability.”
Harris’ comments have come in for criticism. Writing on the Lawfare website, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution said that Harris “taught a master class this week in how not to address the question of accountability for President Trump.” Wittes further argued that “saying that as president you would supervise that person’s prosecution, as Harris did, is poisonous stuff in a democracy that cares about apolitical law enforcement.”
More recently, Harris has said her background as a district attorney and state attorney general qualified her to “prosecute the case” against Trump.
In a speech over the weekend to the South Carolina Democratic Convention, Harris said that “we need somebody on our stage when it comes time for that general election who knows how to recognize a rap sheet when they see it and prosecute the case.”
Granted, Harris in that speech used “prosecution” as a metaphor for her planned aggressive attack on Trump’s legacy, including his policies on taxation, trade, health care and relations with North Korea and Russia. And she isn’t the first politician to (over)emphasize the importance of a background in law enforcement.
Still, her references to Trump’s “rap sheet” and her calls to “prosecute the case” inevitably evoke the idea that Trump is a criminal president who will get his comeuppance once Harris is in the White House.
What will Harris do if she continues to talk about prosecuting Trump, either literally or figuratively, and supporters in the audience start chanting: “Lock him up!”? Sap their enthusiasm by giving them a lecture about nonpartisan justice and the presumption of innocence? Or remain silent and seem to endorse the idea?
If the only contest was the one for the Democratic nomination, this might not matter. But in the general election, assuming she gets that far, Harris will need the votes of Republicans and independents (and some Democrats as well) who don’t like it when candidates of either party seem to be measuring their opponents for prison uniforms.