On the day Mr. Trump called for a criminal investigation of his rival, he asserted on Saturday that he had the “complete power to pardon” his friends, relatives and possibly himself to short-circuit a special counsel’s investigation into any possible collusion between his team and Russia during last year’s campaign. While he said he did not need to use his pardon power at this point, presidents rarely if ever publicly broach the idea of pardons amid an investigation.
Just hours later, Mr. Trump urged uniformed sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford to call their members of Congress to lobby for his military spending plan and his proposed repeal of Mr. Obama’s health care program. Traditionally, the commander in chief does not tell the troops who serve under him to involve themselves in politics or policy battles on his behalf.
By now, it takes more to shock. After all, this is a president who refused to release his tax returns or divest from his private businesses, who put his son-in-law and daughter on the White House staff, who accused his predecessor of illegally tapping his phones without proof, who fired the F.B.I. director leading an investigation into the president’s associates and who has now undercut his “beleaguered” attorney general in public. When he talked politics, jabbed the news media and told stories about Manhattan cocktail parties before tens of thousands of children at the nonpartisan National Scout Jamboree here in West Virginia on Monday, it was hardly surprising.
The comments on the Ford echoed other moments when military officers and defense analysts winced about politicizing the armed forces. The president signed his hotly contested travel ban on visitors from selected Muslim-majority countries at the Pentagon and publicly opined about how troops had voted for him and complained about the news media in front of military audiences.
His comment to the sailors appeared to be ad-libbed, but still troubled security experts. “It was a mistake for the president to make this comment,” said Peter D. Feaver, a specialist on civilian-military matters at Duke University and a former national security aide to Mr. Bush. “While there is a legitimate role for senior brass to explain military affairs to the public, it is not good for civil-military relations to have the military viewed as a special interest group pleading for bigger budgets.”
During last year’s campaign, Mr. Trump said that if he won, he would have Mrs. Clinton prosecuted. “Lock her up,” supporters chanted in what became a campaign mantra. Since taking office, however, he has said that would not be productive.
By Monday, he had returned to his campaign view. “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations,” he wrote, omitting an apostrophe.
Few took that to be an actual order to the Justice Department. In reality, it seemed like more of a political point, diverting attention while arguing that his opponent was the one who was really corrupt and he was being treated to a double standard. But with Mr. Trump, nothing is certain, and his staff did not disavow the possibility.
“I think that he would hope that the Department of Justice would look into any potential area where the law could have been broken,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly promoted White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One en route here. “If there’s the possibility of that, they should take a look.”
Democrats denounced what they called banana republic politics while Republicans warned that Mr. Trump was venturing into dangerous territory. “Presidents don’t order the prosecution of their defeated opponents in this country,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under Mr. Bush. “It’s never sat well with me. That leads to a divided America.” He added that Mr. Trump “does it to fire up the pro-Trump base of the party.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders said that while his statement might be unusual, no other major presidential candidate campaigned while under investigation by the F.B.I., as Mrs. Clinton was. But Mrs. Clinton was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the F.B.I. in the case of her private email server.
Other defeated candidates had their own troubles that victorious rivals did not revisit once taking office. Mr. Gore had been scrutinized over his solicitation of campaign contributions, and Mr. McCain had been investigated for helping a savings and loan tycoon. (Neither faced criminal charges, though the Senate Ethics Committee scolded Mr. McCain for bad judgment.)
The closest analogies that historians could summon occurred a century or more ago. Aaron Burr, who sought to snatch the presidency from Thomas Jefferson when the contest went to the House of Representatives in 1800, was prosecuted in a treason case for later plotting to break off territory and create a new nation. (He was acquitted.) Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate who lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson, was jailed for sedition for speaking out against World War I. In both cases, they were prosecuted for actions taken after the election.
When Mr. Obama took office, some liberal supporters urged him to investigate Mr. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and members of their administration over allegations of torture or war crimes. He rejected that out of hand and even dismissed less incendiary suggestions to establish a commission to examine the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“He concluded that there was no way such a commission could exist without people concluding that the Obama administration was investigating the Bush administration,” said Gregory B. Craig, Mr. Obama’s White House counsel at the time. “There was no way,” he said, “to avoid people thinking that Obama was going after Bush. He thought that was bad for the country and declined to do it.”
As the head of the executive branch, Mr. Trump can legally order investigations started or stopped, his advisers say. Most modern presidents have considered that off limits. But Mr. Trump’s defenders say he is justified given what they characterize as a politically charged atmosphere that has twisted routine interactions with Russian to delegitimize his election and impede his administration.
“As a policy matter, I would’ve said a few months ago that it was a bad idea,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., a former Justice Department official under Republican presidents. “But with what’s going on in the Russia investigation, I am not sure that this is true anymore.”
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