Trump ceded the moral high ground on presidential indictments long ago
A persistent idea undergirds reactions by Donald Trump and the GOP to Trump’s indictment. Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, and sometimes it’s more implicit: Indicting a former president and a candidate in the next election is beyond the pale. It’s even election “interference” or the stuff of banana republics.
Trump ceded the moral high ground on this idea long ago.
He has advocated for the prosecutions of each of the last four Democratic presidential nominees — every single one since 2004. In two cases, he did it during the campaign, even suggesting they should be ineligible to run.
And that’s to say nothing of the many other political opponents he has suggested should be prosecuted. He even, in some cases, actually agitated for that outcome when he held sway over the Justice Department.
The “lock her up” chant leveled at Hillary Clinton is the most well-known entry in this long succession. Trump at times merely goaded his 2016 rally audiences to go down that road, but at other times he endorsed it. He said late in the 2016 campaign, “Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted and should be in jail,” and he even told Clinton to her face at a debate that if he were president, “You’d be in jail.” He added at a later debate that “she shouldn’t be allowed to run.”
By 2020, Trump gave a similar treatment to both his predecessor as president, Barack Obama, and his then-opponent, Joe Biden.
A month before the election, Trump tweeted, “Where are all of the arrests?” He added: “BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN – GOT CAUGHT!!!”
“But these people should be indicted, this was the greatest political crime in the history of our country — and that includes Obama and it includes Biden,” Trump added during an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network the next day. “These are people that spied on my campaign.”
Trump even indicated that he had made that case directly to his attorney general, William P. Barr: “And I say, Bill, we’ve got plenty, you don’t need any more” to indict.
Bartiromo hyped the interview in a tweet stating, “Trump calls for Biden, Obama to be indicted in ‘greatest political crime in history.’”
Trump’s allegations of spying on his campaign were routinely wrong on the substance. But it wasn’t the only instance of his suggesting such indictments or prison time for his political opponents — or even, apparently, applying pressure on the Justice Department:
- Former U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman in his book last year said that his office was charged with investigating former secretary of state and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry. That was two days after Trump tweeted about Kerry’s “possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy” and the same day Trump said Kerry “should be prosecuted on that.”
- Trump accused a number of Democrats of “treason.”
- Trump in 2018 told his White House counsel that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute both Clinton and former FBI director James B. Comey, according to the New York Times. (White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders previously said the Justice Department “should certainly look at” prosecuting Comey.)
- In 2019, he even stated that it would be “appropriate” for him to talk to Barr about investigating Biden.
Former Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly summed up Trump’s posture this way to the New York Times’s Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman: “He was always telling me that we need to use the FBI and the IRS to go after people — it was constant and obsessive and is just what he’s claiming is being done to him now.”
Trump’s allies will certainly argue that somehow what these people did was worse than what Trump did — or that prosecuting him and not them shows a double standard. (Worth noting: While it is not yet known what’s in the Trump indictment, the New York grand jury had been hearing evidence about money paid to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — a proven crime in the case of his convicted former lawyer, Michael Cohen.)
But the Republican talking point generally doesn’t take into account the actual allegations and pretends as if it’s simply wrong to indict a former president and now-candidate, full stop.
“Indicting a former President is an unprecedented step, and it’s a threat to our democracy,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) posted on Truth Social on Thursday night. The message would soon be promoted by the man who two years ago suggested that his Justice Department do precisely that.
In a social media post shortly after his indictment became known, Trump echoed the message.
“These Thugs and Radical Left Monsters have just INDICATED the 45th President of the United States of America, and the leading Republican Candidate, by far, for the 2024 Nomination for President,” Trump said, misspelling “indicted.” “THIS IS AN ATTACK ON OUR COUNTRY THE LIKES OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE. IT IS LIKEWISE A CONTINUING ATTACK ON OUR ONCE FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS.”
Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn responded to Trump’s tweet by saying, “We are now officially a 3rd World Country!!!”
Seven years earlier, Flynn spoke to the 2016 Republican National Convention, at which he made waves by leading the crowd in a chant of “lock her up.”