CLEVELAND — The refrain of this Republican convention hasn’t been “Make America Great Again.” It has been “Lock her up!”
Over the convention’s first two nights, a growing number of Republicans called for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned. One of Trump’s advisers called for her death. The unprecedented tenor for a national political convention has prompted dismay in some corners of the GOP and even launched a Secret Service investigation into a New Hampshire state representative who said Clinton should be shot by a firing squad.
At least three speakers called for the presumptive Democratic nominee’s imprisonment. “Lock her up!” the convention crowd shouted repeatedly on both nights, a chant not heard before at nominee Donald Trump’s rallies.
On Wednesday evening, the chants continued — echoed onstage.
“Lock her up!” Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi, her state’s top law enforcement official, said. “I love that.”
Later Wednesday, the chant resurfaced during the speech of the vice-presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. He ignored it.
A Republican Party still divided over Trump has sought unity by focusing on attacking Clinton instead. But the recurring chant has made clear how much Trump has changed his party’s tone and direction.
On Tuesday, for instance, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recited a series of Clinton’s alleged misdeeds and led the crowd in shouts of “Guilty!” after each.
Months ago, Trump — who calls his opponent “Crooked Hillary” — was among the first prominent Republicans to suggest that Clinton should be imprisoned for her use of a private email server to conduct public business while she was secretary of state. That was before the Justice Department, acting on an FBI recommendation, decided not to prosecute Clinton, although FBI Director James B. Comey said she had been “extremely careless.”
Clinton’s use of that server — and her inability to explain why she had used it — have contributed to a decline in voters’ trust. In a July CNN poll, 34 percent of respondents said Clinton was “honest and trustworthy.” That was down significantly from 55 percent in March 2014.
“I will say this: Hillary Clinton has got to go to jail,” Trump said at a June rally in San Jose. “Folks, honestly, she’s guilty as hell,” Trump said then. He indicated that, if elected, he would have his attorney general revisit the case against Clinton.
Some delegates came to the convention thinking that Clinton might deserve worse.
She should be “swinging from the rafters” — a reference to hanging, said Susan Reneau, an alternate delegate from Montana, in an interview in Cleveland. Reneau said she blamed Clinton and her handling of government emails for Islamic State attacks in Paris, Belgium and Istanbul.
“Hillary has jeopardized everyone,” Reneau said. “It’s not even fair to call this her Watergate — Watergate was peanuts by comparison.” She was wearing a black button that said “Hillary for Prison” on her jacket. Outside, vendors said those buttons were selling mainly to women.
Al Baldasaro, a Republican state representative in New Hampshire and an adviser to Trump on veterans issues, said that “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason” on “The Kuhner Report,” a conservative radio show hosted by Jeff Kuhner. Trump chose Baldasaro to stand behind him at one of the most combative moments of his campaign, a news conference at which he defended his handling of money raised for veterans groups.
On Wednesday, Baldasaro stood by those comments in an interview with radio station WMUR. He said the death penalty was appropriate for Clinton’s handling of government emails. “As far as I’m concerned, it is treason, and the penalty for treason is the firing squad — or maybe it’s the electric chair now,” Baldasaro said.
That got the attention of the Secret Service, which protects Clinton as a candidate and former first lady. “The U.S. Secret Service is aware of this matter and will conduct the appropriate investigation,” spokeswoman Nicole Mainor confirmed in an email.
In the convention hall, the chants began Monday night, the first night of the convention. One speaker — Pat Smith, whose son Sean Smith was killed in the terrorist attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya — said she wanted to see Clinton “in stripes.” Another, U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn of Colorado, said, “We all know she loves her pantsuits, but we should send her an email and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit.”
Some Republicans reacted with dismay to that tone. “I wouldn’t say that she belongs in jail,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), whose Monday speech had been punctuated by the “Lock her up” chant, said afterward on CNN.
On Tuesday night, however, the idea of Clinton as a guilty defendant was the centerpiece of the speech by Christie, a former federal prosecutor who was passed over in Trump’s running-mate search.
Christie’s speech was a powerful sign of how much the GOP — and its theory of what voters wanted — has shifted in just four years.
At the party’s 2012 convention, Christie gave an upbeat, policy-heavy speech focused on his record in New Jersey. It was time, he said, for Republicans to start doing things that got results.
“We are demanding that our leaders stop tearing each other down and work together to take action on the big things facing America,” Christie said then.
The day before his speech, Christie told Michigan GOP delegates he would not commit to prosecuting Clinton if he became Trump’s attorney general. “It’s very tempting to give in to what would be an enormous applause line,” but he wouldn’t, he said.
Then he used the applause line the next day — and the applause was enormous.
“So let’s do something fun tonight,” he said Tuesday, asking the convention crowd to act as a kind of mass jury. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to present the facts to you — you, a jury of her peers — both in this hall and in your living rooms around our nation.”
Christie began with a series of assertions about Clinton’s time as secretary of state: She pushed for a military intervention in Libya, which led to a power vacuum and chaos. She supported better relations with the communist regime in Cuba and for a “reset” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Christie’s speech, these all brought shouts of “Guilty!” from the crowd.
Some of Christie’s message dealt with the actual email investigation. The former U.S. attorney essentially asked the crowd to overrule the Justice Department.
“You see, since the Justice Department refuses to allow you to render a verdict, I’m going to present the case now, on the facts, against Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Christie said.
Later, he got to the point about the emails: “Hillary Clinton, lying to the American people about her selfish, awful judgment in making our secrets vulnerable,” he said. “What’s your verdict? Guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty!” the crowd said.
Several Republican officeholders said they thought Tuesday night’s rhetoric went too far.
Four years ago, the second night of the GOP convention was dedicated to rebuking President Obama for uttering the phrase, “You didn’t build that,” which Republicans believed was Obama discounting the hard work of small-business owners.
This year, the tone inside the GOP’s convention hall had begun to match the raunchy T-shirts sold outside it. Vendors are selling shirts and pins that make crude references to Clinton’s gender, to sexual acts and to the scandal involving her husband and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Candidates and party leaders have lobbed insults at the other party in past U.S. political conventions: In 1936, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt likened his opponents to “economic royalists.” But Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, said he did not know of another convention with rhetoric like that being used against Clinton.
“Saying [the nominee] should be in jail?” Kazin said. “That’s unique.”
For some in the crowd, the chant was something harmless. “A school cheer,” one man called it — fun to chant but not meant literally.
“ ‘Jail Hillary’ is more of a slogan,” said Norma Sanders, 50, a delegate from Mississippi. She said the slogan was invented long before the convention. She heard it first on Facebook, then on Fox News Channel, and finally from other people, face-to-face. “It’s a slogan that gets the point across that people think they would have a punishment for what she did with her email server,” though Clinton did not, Sanders said.
The Clinton campaign did not waste any time taking advantage of the imagery with her supporters.
“If you closed your eyes, you could imagine it being a lot like a witch trial,” read a campaign email soliciting donations. “They were barely one step removed from screaming ‘burn her at the stake.’ It felt like a dark turning point in American politics.”
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from picking up the rhetoric and taking it further.
Michael Folk, a Republican member of West Virginia’s House of Delegates, tweeted last week that Clinton should be “hung” on the Mall in Washington.
Inside the convention hall here in Cleveland, Christie was followed by retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson. He accused Clinton of another offense — literally showing sympathy for the devil. He said Clinton admired now-deceased community organizer Saul Alinsky, who Carson said showed an interest in Lucifer and his ambitions on Earth.
“So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Carson asked. “Think about that.”
Joel Achenbach, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Aryn Braun in Cleveland and Emily Guskin and Aaron Blake in Washington contributed to this report.