Ethics Alarms didn’t want to make heads explode all over American by designating the President Elect an Ethics Hero, for that would go too far. Still, his statement to the New York Times that he won’t recommend prosecution of Hillary Clinton, adding that she has already “suffered greatly,” is a welcome one as well as the ethical course to take.
The news, shocking to some of Trump’s more vindictive followers and also to those who, for some reason, believed that anything Trump has said, promised, pledged or mused about isn’t subject to reversal at any time, was revealed in tweets from New York Times reporters Mike Grynbaum and Maggie Haberman, who attended a meeting between the President-elect and reporters and editors at the paper. The reporters tweets were confirmed by Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway.
One of the Clintons’ prime strategies when they are caught in misconduct is to deny, deny, deny while delaying and stalling, throwing up smoke, confusing the issues, boring most of the public stiff and making their accusers seem like Inspector Javert from “Les Miserables.” Then, before there is any resolution and the investigations seem as stale as last year’s Halloween candy, the Clinton Corrupted, on cue, begin saying that it’s time to “move on, ” which translates into, “Let the Clinton (one, the other, or both) get away with it.” The perpetually juvenile far-left activist group Move-On.Org was launched by that mantra during Bill Clinton’s impeachment travails.
It is an infuriating tactic since it has worked so often, but for once, the argument dovetails with ethics. The United States political process, much as hyper-partisans would enjoy it to be otherwise, must not descend into the ugly practices of lesser nations, where leaders and politicians who fall out of power face show trials, imprisonment and even execution. If there has ever been an incoming President who might be expected to push us in that undemocratic and divisive direction it is Trump, who appears to be historically ignorant and has only rudimentary ethical instincts at best. During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to appoint a special prosecutor to re-open investigations of Clinton’s possible security breaches and possible influence peddling while at State. He happily joined his throngs as they chanted “lock her up!,” and in one debate muttered to Hillary that if he were President, “you’d be in jail.”
At the time it is likely that he didn’t expect to be in a position to follow through on those threats any more than anyone else thought so. Now, however, he will soon be able to make his trolling come true. That would set a destructive precedent. It would drag out and exacerbate the bitterness of the campaign and the election, and cause Democrats to behave even more abysmally than they already are, if that’s possible. It would keep the Clintons in the public eye, when it is profoundly to be wished that their corrupting influence be excised forever. It would appear unnecessary, vengeful and cruel, because it would be unnecessary, vengeful and cruel.
President Gerald Ford was right to pardon Richard Nixon, and President Obama understood the dangers of prosecuting Bush officials, and perhaps even the former President himself, for alleged war crimes. Both of these proposed prosecutions posed more legal difficulties than investigating Clinton would, but the message would have been the same. It would not be the ethical message that no one is above the rule of law, though that message certainly needs to be both sent and believed, but that winners get to send the losers to the metaphorical guillotine in the United States. That message is louder, because it more threatening, and must be avoided at all costs.
Clinton was investigated, and on many fronts. She was not tried, jailed or fined for her e-mail machinations or her obstruction of justice in covering them up, but one can hardly say she got away with it all either. In a vacuum and from a pure Rule of Law perspective, it might seem reasonable to have Clinton’s conduct examined without having to deal with the fact that she was running for President and a that prosecution might give a ridiculous candidate the White House by default. It isn’t a vacuum, though, even now. Once again, the Clintons have successfully created an ethics conflict to their benefit. The United States should not be a nation where losing an election means you might get locked up.
Trump, of course, is taking this stand for the wrong reasons, for he and ethical reasoning are not pals. “She’s suffered enough” is his reason, and that is a rationalization as well as contrary to the justice system’s approach to punishment. The intent isn’t to produce suffering, but to maintain the integrity of the Rule of Law: if a citizen breaks laws, there are consequences that every lawbreaker should and must expect to flow directly from that act. Well, explaining this to Trump would be like explaining it to a block of brie. Never mind.
Undoubtedly, Trump’s reasons for breaking this particular pledge, like the many other promises he is sure to break, as purely pragmatic as the promises themselves. Among them:
He has bigger fish to fry.
He doesn’t need the distraction.
He has enough hate and anger coming from the Left already.
It would probably do more to keep the Clintons relevant than leaving them alone.
Of all people, Trump is the one most likely to eventually find himself grateful that there isn’t an American tradition of prosecuting leaders after they leave power.
Finally, it makes him look statesmanlike, magnanimous and reasonable while Democrats, progressives and bitter pundits are looking anything but. In this case, leaving Hillary alone is the smart thing for Trump to do. Not that he cares, but it is also ethical.