A post-election shot across the bow of the First Amendment.
"I find Harry Reid's public comments and insults about Donald Trump and other Republicans to be beyond the pale. . . . And he should be very careful about characterizing somebody in a legal sense. He thinks — he thinks he's just being some kind of political pundit there, but I would say be very careful about the way you characterize it." [boldface added for emphasis]
Throughout the campaign, Trump claimed Hillary should be in jail, that if he were elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor to go after "crooked Hillary." Gleeful crowds responded, "Lock her up! Lock her up!" Trump called the women who accused him of sexual assault liars and threatened to sue them. His antagonism toward the media led him to say he would "open up our libel laws" so the press could be sued for what is now legally protected speech. But all that was before the election, when Trump was only a candidate. It was just idle talk—vicious, dangerous, but idle talk.
The election is over, and Trump is president-elect. Nothing he or his closest advisors says is idle talk anymore. Kellyanne Conway made the statement above
five days after the election, so it means something. It was Conway letting everyone know that outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid better be damn careful about the way he criticizes Trump, or else. Of course, she wasn't just addressing her comment to Reid. She was telling everyone who was listening, politician, pundit or private citizen, to watch what they say about Trump, or his administration just might come after them with the full force of the U.S. government.
Conway made the statement on Chris Wallace's Fox News Sunday. One of Wallace's strengths is that he actually listens to the people he's interviewing instead of waiting for them to finish so he can ask his next prepared question. On hearing Conway issue a legal threat to Reid, instead of letting her move on as she wanted to so she could leave the threat hanging as a frightening possibility, Wallace interrupted her. "But wait, wait, wait. Are you—?" Conway tried once again to move on, but Wallace wouldn't let her. "Are you suggesting," he asked, "when you say in a legal sense, are you suggesting that Donald Trump might sue Harry Reid?"
The threat of lawsuits against people who cross him has been one of Trump's go-to bullying tactics throughout his business career, and he continued to employ it on the campaign trail. Conway was making sure everyone understood, that won't change once Trump is president. But Conway, an expert at the quick pivot, lied and denied that was her intent. "No, I'm not suggesting that at all," she replied to Wallace's question and moved on. Of course she was suggesting Trump might sue Reid or anyone else who gets in their way. She just didn't want to confirm that's what she said. Not yet anyway.
Using the law to censor dissent is a technique employed by dictators world wide. Will Trump use his presidential power to come after people who challenge him? We don't know yet. But almost as dangerous as government-imposed censorship is self censorship, where people feel they have to be careful about what they say, because who knows what will happen if the president doesn't approve?