What Donald Trump's 'fishy' comments about Vince Foster tell us

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally, Thursday, April 28, 2016 in Costa Mesa, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally, Thursday, April 28, 2016 in Costa Mesa, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Donald Trump wants you to know that he isn’t sure that Hillary Clinton had her friend and adviser Vince Foster murdered back in 1993.

Foster’s death was ruled a suicide.  Trump doesn’t have all the facts, he admits, but he finds that ruling “fishy.”

“[Foster] had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump says of Foster’s relationship with the Clinton White House.  “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”  The rhetorical question mark at the end of that sentence is implied.  What, the guy just offed himself?  Come on!

Still, Trump insists he is keeping an open mind on the Foster case.  “I don’t bring it up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it,” he recently said to an interviewer, thereby bringing it up.  “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder.  I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”

This introduces a whole new standard of fairness into American political discourse. 

Spreading slanderous rumors about the health, morality and honesty of opponents is a staple of presidential politics going back to the Founding Fathers.  In modern times, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were masters of the art.  But until now, standard procedure and simple etiquette required assigning the task to trusted middle men and loyal proxies.

In this, as in so much, Trump breaks precedent.  He is the first presidential candidate in memory who has willing, even eager, to do the dirtiest of his own work in public.    

AND IT IS DIRTY. If Donald Trump actually thinks that Vince Foster was assassinated, he is an idiot who can’t tell the difference between a discredited internet rumor and reality.  But he isn't an idiot.  He is smart which he, himself--sounding like Fredo in “Godfather II”—constantly and passionately asserts).  That leaves the second possibility: Trump is knowingly and falsely suggesting that Hillary Clinton is a murderer.

Trump’s stated rationale for such creepy slander is that Hillary started it by saying mean things about him.  He is an innocent counter-puncher, a guy just fighting back. 

This is not just childish; it is a chilling insight into what a Trump administration might be like.  Opposition and criticism are fact of life for an American president.  Slings and arrows come with the job.  It is necessary for a president to fire back, but not with unconventional weapons.

Candidate Trump can’t do more than make Hillary Clinton lose her composure (which, I suppose, is his intention).  But just imagine the kind of retaliation President Trump—in charge of the Justice Department, the FBI, the IRS and other punitive machinery of the federal government—might visit upon his political opponents, media critics, foreign leaders and just plain citizens who happen to offend him.

I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton. She is greedy and hypocritical. Her career has been almost DEVOID of accomplishments not attributable to her husband. She is fully capable of being nasty and unfair.  But she is, for better or worse, a known commodity.  Nobody seriously believes that, if elected president, she would be dangerous.

Donald Trump is different. He is untried as a political man. We can only judge him by his words.  Trump may think that, by insinuating Hillary Clinton is a murderer, he just engaging in politics as usual.  He is not.  He has crossed a line into a paranoid and sinister form of demagoguery that violates the both the norms of American political discourse and simple common decency.

Zev Chafets is a Fox News contributor. His latest book is "Remembering Who We Are: A Treasury of Conservative Commencement Addresses" (Sentinel 2015).