CLEVELAND ― If there is a theme to this year’s Republican convention in Cleveland, it’s that Hillary Clinton belongs in jail. Chants of “lock her up” have bellowed from the floor, sparked by speakers saying the Democratic presumptive nominee should be put in stripes, with others turning their prime time speaking gigs into mock trials ― “Guilty or not guilty!?”
Even the top law enforcer in Florida, state Attorney General Pam Bondi, picked up the chant off the convention floor Wednesday and told the crowd she approved. “Lock her up. I love that,” Bondi said.
As far as red meat goes, it doesn’t get much rarer. But for the higher-ups of the Republican Party who have been more wary of Donald Trump, there is an unease over the convention’s jail-Hillary theme. Few actually are willing to say they, too, believe she should be behind bars.
“I spoke yesterday also, and you didn’t hear me say those words,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He was referencing the brief remarks he’d made to the convention on Monday.
“I think she came within a thread of being indicted. And the point I was making, and I’m going to decline to specifically say what the result of the court would be, but what I am saying is the American people view her as being given special treatment,” he said.
There was never going to be any sympathy for Clinton here in Cleveland. Even before it was revealed that she used a private email address and server while secretary of state, she inspired an unusual amount of animus from Republicans. Those revelations only fed the critics who say she’s too morally challenged to be president.
Still, it’s rare, if not unprecedented, for convention-goers and speakers to demand the opposition candidate’s imprisonment. And for some GOP officials, there’s fear that the spectacle being broadcast into millions of living rooms these past few nights more closely resembles a rabid carnival than a party convention.
“No,” said longtime anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist when asked if he thought Clinton actually should be in jail. “I think she should run for president and be defeated.”
“What she did in terms of the misuse of classified documents, I think it would pay for Trump and others to say, If anybody in my administration does that, they will be fired, and if anyone in my administration does that, that signature they put on, you know, here’s how you handle things, that’s gonna be proof that you knew that this was wrong,” Norquist said.
Asked whether he believes that Clinton actually belonged in jail, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a prominent Trump endorser, notably dodged. “I don’t have any expression on that,” he told The Huffington Post.
In the political world outside of Quicken Loans Arena, Clinton legal troubles aren’t imminent; they’re receding. FBI Director James Comey’s investigation into her private email use has concluded. And although Comey offered a biting indictment of her judgment and honesty, he insisted that there wasn’t enough material to build a clear, fair case.
That decision not to prosecute has been decried by congressional Republicans, who quickly called Comey to the Hill to explain himself. But even the fringiest of that bunch isn’t ready to throw Clinton behind bars right away.
“I felt like she should have a chance to have her case be considered by a grand jury,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). The FBI and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch “allowed political appointees to make a decision a grand jury should have made,” he said. He added that he had tried people himself through grand juries and that he was familiar with the saying that a grand jury would indict “a ham sandwich.”
Donald Trump’s campaign, to a certain degree, has also struggled to find the right approach to Clinton’s email saga. Early on, the Republican nominee said he worried that talking about it would bore his crowd. “They don’t want to hear that,” he told the Washington Post. But over time, it’s become a more prominent feature of his rallies. And in Cleveland, his circle is actively promoting the idea that a Trump election would facilitate her imprisonment.
“She should be [put in jail],” Roger Stone, an adviser, told The Huffington Post. “If Donald Trump became president, the Trump Justice Department could investigate her many crimes for which the statute of limitations have not yet run. There are multiple crimes, right now, today, at the Clinton Foundation. Their filings, both federally and in the states are rife ― they’re permeated ― with fraud. They could be prosecuted for those things, and if they weren’t the Clintons, if they weren’t Democrats, they would be.”
“Under a new, reformed administration, yeah, I think that they would be liable to a prosecution by a Trump Justice Department,” Stone added. “And I suspect that Attorney General Chris Christie would be just the man for the job.”
There were people among the throngs outside the building who, unlike Stone, were willing to respect Comey’s decision, even if they didn’t really like it. But for more, it raised shades of conspiracy, even for one candidate for Congress, Don Larson, who is running against Cleveland-area Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
“I hate to be the conspiracy theorist, and sound like those wild guys ― you know the ‘two-tiered system,’ and there’s all this ‘the system is rigged, you can’t get ahead,’” said Larson.
“But for the first time in my life, when I listened to the director of the FBI, I’m beginning to question the sincerity of the government, [whether] there really is equal justice for all,” said Larson, who noted that he handled classified information as a communications officer in the Navy. “Because I know it would have been me. I would have been guilty of mismanaging classified information while small and unimportant.”
The mood of the crowd itself could be seen in the shirts that adorned many. Strolling around outside, dozens and dozens of people wore T-shirts saying “Hillary for Prison.” Alysia Tambourides, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom from Houston, wore one of them as she walked outside the arena Wednesday. She had no doubt Clinton belonged behind bars.
“She didn’t have intent? What is that?” Tambourides said, referring to Comey’s explanation for not referring Clinton for prosecution ― that she didn’t intend to break the law.
Almost all of the “Hillary for Prison” shirts are sold by InfoWars.com, a conspiracy theory site managed by 9/11 Truther Alex Jones. Tambourides said she didn’t believe planes knocked down the Twin Towers in 2001.
“What Alex is doing is breaking things down ― I think everyone knows in their gut that something’s going on,” Tambourides said, repeating a line that Trump himself has used several times.
Dave Jamieson and Matt Fuller contributed reporting.
This article has been updated to include Pam Bondi’s comment.