The three-word phrase was foundational to the Republican Party’s national message in 2016: “Lock her up.” As far as the party, its presidential nominee, and its base were concerned, Hillary Clinton’s email protocols weren’t just disqualifying, they were grounds for incarceration.
On Fox News last night, Gov. Ron DeSantis reflected on what happened — or at least what he remembers happening — after Donald Trump defeated the former secretary of state:
“Remember, I went to the rallies in 2016, Laura. You remember them, ‘Lock her up, lock her up,’ about holding Hillary accountable. And then, two weeks after the election, he said, ‘Never mind that I said that’ and let her off the hook.”
In context, I think this was intended as criticism of Trump, not praise. The Florida governor immediately went on to say that the former president failed to “drain the swamp,” as if Trump’s reluctance to prosecute his 2016 rival were necessarily evidence of his indifference to wrongdoing in the nation’s capital.
Oddly enough, other GOP officials have made the same claim while commending the former president for his magnanimity. Last summer, for example, after the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida told Fox News that after Trump became president, he made a conscious choice to leave his Democratic opponent alone.
“President Trump took that approach. He said, ’You know what, we’re not going to prosecute Hillary Clinton,’” Waltz said, as if reality had no meaning. The GOP lawmaker added, “[Trump] said, ‘You know what, let’s move on. Let’s move forward.’”
As recently as two months ago, Sen. Ron Johnson also went to Fox News to push the same line. “President Ford decided it was best for America not to pursue prosecution against President Nixon. President Trump pretty much made the same decision and decided not to pursue any kind of prosecution of Hillary Clinton,” the Wisconsin Republican claimed. “Joe Biden could have made the exact same decision, but he didn’t.”
Now, it’s DeSantis telling the same tale, though from a different perspective.
The problem, of course, is that the GOP effort to rewrite recent history is as wrong as it is bizarre. Revisiting our earlier coverage, in Trump’s first year in the White House, he publicly pleaded with the Justice Department to go after Clinton. A year later, the then-president told the White House counsel that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Clinton.
Ahead of Election Day 2020 — nearly four years after Clinton’s defeat — Trump again called for the Democrat’s incarceration and lobbied then-Attorney General Barr to prosecute Clinton for reasons unknown.
None of this was kept secret. It happened out in the open. We all saw it play out in public.
And yet, there was DeSantis last night, telling a national television audience that Trump made a deliberate decision to let the Democrat “off the hook.”
Part of what makes this notable is the frequency with which prominent Republican voices try to rewrite history in spectacularly dishonest ways, but there’s also a timely related angle. For all the deceptive GOP claims about Democrats trying to “weaponize” federal law enforcement, DeSantis is inadvertently reminding us that Trump took brazen and desperate steps — repeatedly, and in public — to turn federal law enforcement into a weapon to be used against his perceived political enemies.
His Republican allies, including DeSantis, not only failed to complain about such efforts while they happened, they’re now pretending not to remember the events at all.
Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”