US president-elect Donald Trump backed away from a threat to prosecute his political rival Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, saying to do so would be "very divisive for the country."
During a meeting with New York Times editorial staff, Trump appeared to reverse the "lock-her-up" campaign rhetoric that had called his respect for the rule of law into question.
"I don't want to hurt the Clintons, I really don't," Trump was quoted as saying by the paper's staff. "She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways."
After an FBI investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state, the Department of Justice recommended no charges be levelled at the Democratic candidate.
But the issue has enraged Republicans and has been cited as a factor in Clinton's defeat to Trump at during the 2016 presidential election.
During the campaign Trump triggered consternation -- and widespread condemnation -- when he said Clinton would be in jail if he won the White House.
He now faces the consternation of supporters who took that pledge literally.
Right-wing website Breitbart accused Trump of a "broken promise," in what may be the first visible crack in Trump's coalition of Republicans, the disgruntled middle class and far right extremists.
"I think it would be very, very divisive for the country," Trump said, defending his U-turn.
"My inclination would be for whatever power I have on the matter is to say let's go forward. This has been looked at for so long, ad nauseum."
- 'How crooked' -
Throughout the long campaign and during the transition to the White House Trump has appeared to reverse himself on a range of policies, from immigration to climate change.
Whether this is the last reversal on Clinton remains to be seen.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham -- who opposed Trump's run for the White House -- expressed misgivings at Trump's latest stance.
"I can understand wanting to put the election behind us and heal the nation," Graham said.
"But I do hope all the things President-elect Trump said about how crooked she was –- well, we just don't let it go without some serious effort to see if the law was truly violated."
Trump said he did not think his loyal supporters would be disappointed. "I think I will explain it that we in many ways will save our country," he said.
But detractors are likely to see Trump's comments as yet more evidence that he does not understand or respect the division between the executive and judicial branches.
It would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a sitting president to direct his attorney general to investigate -- or to lay off -- a political rival.
Clinton has attributed her loss to the bombshell decision, less than two weeks before the vote, by FBI Director James Comey to look again at the probe into her use of a private email server.
In a call with donors, she claimed that two letters Comey sent to Congress -- one effectively re-opening the probe and then another closing it again after finding no new evidence of wrongdoing -- had tilted crucial states towards her Republican rival.
Comey's second letter, sent three days before the election, stated that the FBI maintained its July recommendation not to charge Clinton.
Washington, United States | AFP