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Republicans who chanted 'Lock her up!' cry that the DOJ is being too political

Trump suggested his Department of Justice investigate more than two dozen people he considered opponents.
Photo illustration: A tape with repeated logos of the Republican party over a partial view of Donald Trump.
MSNBC / Getty Images

Since the FBI executed a legally obtained search warrant on the home of former President Donald Trump, there’s been an apparent race by the former president’s supporters to determine, as far as I can see, who can make the most irresponsible statement defending him.

There's been an apparent race by the former president’s supporters to determine who can make the most irresponsible statement defending him.

Without evidence, Trump’s supporters have accused the leadership of the Justice Department and FBI of engaging in a political vendetta against Trump and planting incriminating evidence at his home. They’ve called for defunding the FBI, impeaching Attorney General Merrick Garland and used inflammatory language, such as suggesting that the search was an act of “war” against Trump.

But the words of Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., are perhaps the most chilling:

“If the FBI can raid a U.S. President, imagine what they can do to you.”

On the surface, this might sound anodyne. But the implications of what Stefanik is suggesting are frightening: Anybody who is or has been president of the United States should never be investigated for a crime.

The fact that a former president is no less immune from prosecution than any other resident is not a bug of American democracy, it’s one of its greatest features. It means that all Americans, no matter their station, are equal under the law. But for Stefanik, it appears treating the president as if he’s no different from an ordinary citizen is a bridge too far.

While the congresswoman is obliquely making the argument that Trump is above the law, others are saying it more directly. In The Wall Street Journal Wednesday, columnist Dan Henninger said the quiet part loud:

You can hate Donald Trump until your eyes pop out, but let us be clear: He was elected the 45th president of the U.S. He served four years in office. No former president who was disliked by many — not Clinton, Reagan nor FDR — had his home invaded by a squad of FBI agents. This should never happen in the U.S. End of discussion.

Let’s put aside the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was never a former president since he died while in office, but in Henninger’s formulation, the fact that Trump was elected president and served in the office for four years means the law can’t touch him. To paraphrase one of Trump’s more famous declarations, if he were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, not only would he not lose any support … Henninger would object to him being investigated.

Few Republicans are making the argument as directly as Henninger, but the manner in which they are defending Trump leaves little doubt that their allegiance lies with him and not the rule of law.

While things may change now that we know Trump is being investigated for violations of the Espionage Act, up to now Republicans have, virtually en masse, argued that investigating the former president is an illegitimate act. Few members of Congress are acting more irresponsibly on this point than Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who tweeted earlier this week about Democrats, “After taking power they first put their political rivals in jail or forced exile (an indirect reference, it seems, to those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6, 2021). Then when the supporters of your rivals protest, you label them dangerous & criminalize opposition.”

Rubio also complained that the “far left” is demanding that Trump be arrested and charged with a crime.

Perhaps the senior senator from Florida forgets that the 2016 campaign was largely defined by the supporters of the man he backed for president chanting “Lock her up!” in reference to Hillary Clinton. It also seems he’s forgotten the more than two dozen people that Trump, as president, demanded be investigated by the Justice Department, including Clinton, former President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., special counsel Robert Mueller, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Google and even DOJ itself.

As president, Trump regularly assailed his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and, thus, relinquishing the power to impede it. In effect, he attacked Sessions for not obstructing justice on his behalf.

For Trump’s supporters, he exists in a rarefied air where accountability, or even legal inquiry, doesn’t apply.

None of these statements, none of the flagrant attempts to politicize the Department of Justice, none of the efforts to “criminalize Trump’s political opposition” raised any concerns among Rubio or most of his fellow Republicans. Indeed, many of them joined in the “Lock her up!” chants and the politicized calls for investigating Clinton, Hunter Biden, or any other Democrats who crossed Trump.

To them, the rule of law only applies to their political rivals. It certainly does not apply to the former president to whom they are all beholden. For Trump’s supporters, he exists in a rarefied air where accountability, or even legal inquiry, doesn’t apply. That’s certainly the way they treated him when he was president, and little has changed since he left office. The way they speak of him and speak of investigations into his actions suggest that they don’t view him as a former president or even a potential future president but rather as king, above reproach.

We already knew the inherent dangers in letting Donald Trump anywhere near the White House again, but the attitude of Republicans toward the former president shows that the risks go even deeper. The GOP has become unmoored from the nation’s basic democratic norms and traditions.