Fox News’s Sean Hannity is incensed — incensed, I tell you — that a leading American politician would call for putting her political opponent in jail. After it was reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues that she wanted to see President Trump “in prison,” Hannity lit into her Thursday night.
“Based on no actual crimes, she wants a political opponent locked up in prison,” Hannity fumed. “Um, that happens in banana republics. Beyond despicable behavior. And, by the way, they would literally turn, in many ways, the USA into a country that we would no longer recognize.”
It didn’t take long for critics to note the hypocrisy here. Trump, after all, turned “lock her up” into a rallying cry during the 2016 campaign. And we recently found out from the report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that Trump has attempted on multiple occasions to get the Justice Department to reopen its investigation of Hillary Clinton.
Among those also pushing for a reopening of the Clinton cases is Hannity, a loyal Trump backer if there ever was one. Shortly after Trump won the 2016 election, Hannity said Trump’s focus on other issues “doesn’t mean that he can’t tell the FBI and Department of Justice to pursue the law, justice under the law — that means the Clinton email scandal and the [Clinton] Foundation scandals.”
Hannity even explicitly said, “I think Hillary should be in jail. Lock her up. Lock her up.”
Of course, Hannity knows all this. He also had to know what kind of reaction his segment on Thursday night would gain. It’s a pretty obvious bit of gaslighting.
But it’s also worth comparing the two situations. It’s notable that the speaker of the House of Representatives is saying she wants to see the president “in prison,” and it’s worth asking whether this is the kind of democratic process we want. I was on a panel Thursday night on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on which Chris Matthews compared the situation to what you’d see in “Pakistan in the old days. Defeat the guy, then hang him.”
I think there are key differences between “in prison” and “lock her up,” though.
The first is that Pelosi, as speaker, has no actual power to put Trump behind bars. Trump, in contrast, was running to be president, where he could appoint an attorney general and has proved a willingness to exert a certain amount of influence over the Justice Department’s investigative powers. Pelosi was talking about a desire to see Trump convicted based upon the evidence she has seen, rather than impeached; Trump was talking about something he feasibly had power to make happen.
The second difference is what I mentioned above: the previous decision. The FBI, in a decision made by then-Director James B. Comey, decided not to recommend charges against Clinton in the email case. In the case of Trump, Mueller has explicitly said it wasn’t his place to decide whether Trump obstructed justice but added that he couldn’t clear him of those charges. Mueller laid out at least five instances of potential obstruction in which he seemed to conclude the evidence satisfied the criteria for obstruction charges. He added that Trump “does not have immunity after he leaves office” and that his investigation aimed to “preserve the evidence.”
Of course, Trump backers would note that Attorney General William P. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein then stepped in and said they did not believe Trump should be accused. But technically speaking, a prosecutive decision has not been made, because Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president can’t be charged.
Hannity’s declaration Thursday night hangs heavily on one clause: “based on no actual crimes.” The implication seems to be that it’s okay for Trump to call for Clinton’s jailing because she did commit — or may have committed — crimes. Comey said Clinton was “extremely careless” but that a reasonable prosecutor wouldn’t pursue criminal charges. In the case of Pelosi and Trump, though, Hannity sees “no actual crimes.” Ipso facto, this is banana-republic stuff. It’s a rather remarkable and subjective qualifier, but it’s his qualifier, nonetheless.
From there, the question is whether this kind of rhetoric is healthy, even if there are key ways in which Pelosi’s comment doesn’t rise to the level of Trump’s. We still have both of the leaders of the two major American political parties talking about putting their top political opponents in jail. Pelosi is still skipping over the whole part where Trump would be prosecuted and convicted, and instead she goes straight to his being “in prison.”
Trump has so degraded the political dialogue in this country — and the impeachment crowd is so ascendant — that Pelosi apparently feels the need to go there.