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Taking Page From Authoritarians, Trump Turns Power of State Against Political

President Trump’s order to his secretary of state to declassify thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails, along with his insistence that his attorney general issue indictments against Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., takes his presidency into new territory — until now, occupied by leaders with names like Putin, Xi and Erdogan.

Mr. Trump has long demanded — quite publicly, often on Twitter — that his most senior cabinet members use the power of their office to pursue political enemies. But his appeals this week, as he trailed badly in the polls and was desperate to turn the national conversation away from the coronavirus, were so blatant that one had to look to authoritarian nations to make comparisons.

He took a step even Richard M. Nixon avoided in his most desperate days: openly ordering direct, immediate government action against specific opponents, timed to serve his re-election campaign.

“There is essentially no precedent,” said Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush and has written extensively on presidential powers. “We have a norm that developed after Watergate that presidents don’t talk about ongoing investigations, much less interfere with them.”

“It is crazy and it is unprecedented,” said Mr. Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard Law School, “but it’s no different from what he has been saying since the beginning of his presidency. The only thing new is that he has moved from talking about it to seeming to order it.”

Mr. Trump’s vision of the presidency has always leaned to exercising the absolute powers of the chief executive, a writ-large version of the family business he presided over. “I have an Article II,” he told young adults last year at a Turning Point USA summit, referring to the section of the Constitution that deals with the president’s powers, “where I have the right to do whatever I want as president, but I don’t even talk about that.”

Now he is talking about it, almost daily. He is making it clear that prosecutions, like vaccines for the coronavirus, are useless to him if they come after Nov. 3. He has declared, without evidence, that there is already plenty of proof that Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton, among others, were fueling the charges that his campaign had links to Russia — what he calls “the Russia hoax.” And he has pressured his secretary of state to agree to release more of Mrs. Clinton’s emails before the election, reprising a yearslong fixation despite having defeated her four years ago.

Presidential historians say there is no case in modern times where the president has so plainly used his powers to take political opponents off the field — or has been so eager to replicate the behavior of strongmen. “In America, our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, wrote on Twitter after Mr. Trump returned from the hospital where he received Covid-19 treatment and removed his mask, while still considered contagious, as he saluted from the White House balcony.

Long ago, White House officials learned how to avoid questions about whether the president views his powers as fundamentally more constrained than those of the authoritarians he so often casts in admiring terms, including Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. They have something in common: Mr. Trump’s State Department has criticized all three for corrupting the justice systems in their countries to pursue political enemies.

(Russia, the State Department complained in its 2019 Human Rights report, engaged in a “crackdown on political opposition…

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