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Even now, Trump's focus drifts toward prosecuting Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump can't order the Justice Department to pursue his political opponents. This appears to be a constant source of frustration for the president.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walks off the stage as Republican nominee Donald Trump remains at his podium after their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo by Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walks off the stage as Republican nominee Donald Trump remains at his podium after their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Oct. 19, 2016. 

Donald Trump was an unusual presidential candidate in a wide variety of ways, but one of the things that made the Republican truly special was his stated desire to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate his opponent.

Indeed, as the GOP nominee, Trump wasn't especially subtle on this point. In the second presidential debate, he declared his intention to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton after the election -- with the hopes of putting her "in jail." As we discussed last fall, it was the first time in American history a major-party presidential candidate vowed to a national audience he'd lock up his opponent if elected.

As we now know, Trump won anyway, and his former Democratic rival is not behind bars. But it's hard not to notice that the president can't stop himself from returning to the subject, over and over again.

On Saturday, for example, Trump turned to Twitter to write, "Many people in our Country are asking what the 'Justice' Department is going to do" about the email account of "totally Crooked Hillary."

At face value, it certainly looked like a statement in which the president was lobbying the Justice Department to investigate one of his political critics.

This morning, asked about last week's indictment of his former White House National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, Trump's mind once again went to his former opponent.

"Well, I feel badly for General Flynn. I feel very badly. He's led a very strong life, and I feel very badly, John."I will say this: Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI and nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and they destroyed his life. I think it's a shame. Hillary Clinton, on the Fourth of July weekend, went to the FBI, not under oath -- it was the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen. She lied many times. Nothing happened to her. Flynn lied, and it's like they ruined his life. It's very unfair."

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, Hillary Clinton didn't lie to the FBI. The FBI has already acknowledged as much. The president's comments this morning were the latest example of Trump just making stuff up.

But it's the underlying message that should make the country nervous.

The United States is not some banana republic, where one party vows to lock up the leaders of the other after the election. But Donald Trump seems annoyed by these constraints, as if he believed he could use the power of the presidency to simply name federal targets for criminal prosecution, based on his own personal whims, and the limits of his power are a constant source of disappointment.

A month ago, on Nov. 2, Trump made little effort to hide his annoyance with his inability to pursue partisan vengeance through federal law enforcement. "You know the saddest thing, because I'm the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department," Trump said. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I'm very frustrated by it."

One day later, he told reporters, "I'm not really involved with the Justice Department. I'd like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at Democrats." Asked if he might fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he fails to investigate the White House's political opponents, Trump said, "I don't know."

I can appreciate the fact that it's easy to grow inured to developments like these, but Trump continues to describe the politicization of federal law enforcement in a way that's plainly indefensible. The president apparently wants to be an authoritarian ruler and is "very frustrated" by his inability to sic the Justice Department on those he disapproves of.

In theory, this would be the point at which Jeff Sessions and congressional Republicans defended the American legal system, and pushed back against Trump's desire to corrupt it. Alas, that never happens.