Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday that the Justice Department should "certainly look at" charging James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director whom President Trump fired, for what she described as leaks of classified information. [...]Asked whether Mr. Comey should be prosecuted, Ms. Sanders replied, "That's not the president's role." She added, "That's the job of the Department of Justice, and something they should certainly look at."
The president's spokesperson added that Comey's actions "were improper and likely could have been illegal."
Asked similar questions in Monday's press briefing, Sanders emphasized that she's "not an attorney," but a day later, she nevertheless seemed comfortable reflecting on the former FBI director's alleged misdeeds.
To the extent that reality matters, no one at the White House has pointed to any specific instances in which Comey committed alleged crimes, but that's obviously not what this is about. Trump World recognizes the Russia scandal as an existential threat to Trump's presidency, and given the apparent investigation into obstruction of justice, the president's team believes it must tear down the former FBI director's credibility.
Evidently, that includes accusing him of wrongdoing without credible evidence to back it up.
What often goes overlooked, however, is how common this line of attack is in Trump World: opponents aren't just attacked; they're almost instinctively labeled criminals.
Indeed, it's apparently the favorite play in the West Wing's playbook. Trump falsely accused Barack Obama, for example, of ordering an illegal wiretap before the election. When Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) made high-profile criticisms of the White House, the president called for an investigation into him, too.
As recently as late July, Trump demanded to know why Attorney General Jeff Session hasn't yet launched a probe into Hillary Clinton's "crimes."
As a substantive matter, these tactics are plainly bizarre. But as a political matter, they're also rather dangerous. In the American tradition, presidents have not routinely lashed out at domestic opponents as literal criminals without proof. We expect the White House to argue with its rivals, not hope for their incarceration.
If the president's followers start chanting, "Lock him up" in reference to James Comey at the next campaign rally, at least we'll know why.