Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump promised at the second presidential debate that if he is elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and imprison Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The statement was the climax of a campaign by Fox News to delegitimize the Department of Justice and FBI’s decision not to issue charges in its investigation of Clinton’s email use.
During the October 9 presidential debate, Trump told Clinton that if he is elected president, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” Added Trump, “There has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.” Trump later told Clinton that if he were in charge, “you would be in jail.”
Trump’s threat, which journalists have roundly condemned as “a new low in American democracy,” follows Fox News’ drumbeat of denouncing and questioning federal officials' decision that there would be no federal criminal charges filed against Clinton following their investigation into her email use as secretary of state.
Leading up to federal officials’ decision not to charge Clinton, Fox personalities repeatedly hyped the investigation and the likelihood of federal charges, and they also laid the groundwork to criticize officials if charges were not issued.
Starting in March 2015, when Clinton’s use of a private email server was first reported, Fox figures repeatedly and baselessly claimed that Clinton committed a felony crime. Fox personalities claimed that the government could “be laying the groundwork for an indictment against Secretary Clinton" and that Clinton would either get “indicted, or there's a criminal referral somehow squashed by the higher-ups.”
Despite Fox’s confidence, personalities at the network were also laying the groundwork to criticize officials should they not proceed with an indictment. Fox correspondent Jesse Watters in February said that a decision not to indict would mean “Obama cares more about his legacy than the law.” Fox host Dana Perino in March argued that if the Justice Department did not indict Clinton, it “exposes the rot and corruption that the people on the other side think already exists in the system.” And in April, Fox senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said that if Clinton was not indicted, it would cause a “scandal … almost as treacherous and dangerous and fatal to Mrs. Clinton's political career as if she had been indicted." These comments came despite multiple reports from media and experts that an indictment was extremely unlikely.
In July, FBI Director James Comey, a Republican, announced the results of the FBI’s investigation, saying that “no charges are appropriate in this case” and that no reasonable prosecutor would take it. The Justice Department accepted those recommendations. Fox personalities, who had previously praised Comey for his impartiality, turned on him and criticized the decision, even though Comey noted that going after Clinton would expand the boundaries of what the federal government had pursued in the past. Napolitano, who had previously called Comey “a very, very straight shooter,” claimed the FBI’s “hands were tied by … political forces.” Anchor Martha MacCallum, who had previously called Comey “a very serious operator and a man who is respected pretty much universally,” said people were thinking that “there was some sort of effort to make sure that Hillary Clinton was not indictable." And host Sean Hannity, who had previously said Comey was “respected by both sides of the aisle,” charged that “the fix is in here.” Contributor K.T. McFarland said Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch had “betrayed their oath of office, and I think they have betrayed the country.” Fox continued its campaign into August and September, with host Bill O’Reilly saying that while he gave Comey “the benefit of the doubt” on not indicting Clinton, Comey had “lost all credibility” because of a release of documents related to the FBI’s investigation on a Friday, “when [Comey] hopes no one will see them.”
Fox laid the groundwork for crying foul, and then Trump pushed similar claims, criticizing Comey and suggesting some kind of cover-up. In a statement, Trump blamed the FBI’s decision on “our rigged system that holds the American people to one standard and people like Hillary Clinton to another.” Echoing Fox personalities, Trump baselessly implied former President Bill Clinton met with Lynch to prevent her from bringing charges against his wife, and he later said Hillary Clinton offered a “bribe” to Lynch by pledging to keep her in the position if Clinton becomes president. Later, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump said Comey had used words like “‘extremely careless'” and “'negligent’” to describe Clinton's staff’s handling of classified material in order to “save” Clinton “from facing justice for her terrible crimes.” His then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort also said that the FBI “is certainly suspect these days after what they just did with Hillary Clinton."
Escalating Fox’s delegitimization of federal law enforcement’s Clinton investigation, Fox host Bill O’Reilly called for an independent prosecutor to investigate supposed corruption in the FBI and Justice Department three days prior to the debate, saying “the fix was in” regarding the “Clinton email fiasco.” O’Reilly falsely claimed that immunity deals the FBI gave to Clinton aides in the investigation proved that it was fixed, even though the immunity deals were limited and were necessary to resolve interagency disputes on what information contained in the Clinton email server should be retroactively classified and Comey noted that it’s “a fairly normal tool in investigations.” Using these exaggerated claims, O’Reilly said “there is now enough evidence of corruption in the Justice Department that an independent prosecutor should be appointed.”
Trump capitalized on Fox’s delegitimization campaign and took it to the extreme in the second presidential debate when he threatened to imprison his Democratic opponent.