clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump’s troubling response to “lock them up!” chants during his Pennsylvania rally

The chants were disturbing. Trump’s response to them was even worse.

Donald Trump Holds “MAGA” Rally In Central Pennsylvania
Trump speaks on Monday night.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s reelection rallies might have found version 2.0 of their familiar “lock her up!” chants: “Lock them up!”

With special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation mostly in the rearview mirror and William Barr installed as the protective attorney general Trump hoped Jeff Sessions would be, the president went on the attack during his speech Monday evening in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, reviving his baseless treason accusations against the FBI and Democrats.

“We caught ’em — they were spying,” Trump said, referring to the counterintelligence investigation of his campaign that began in 2016 and followed normal procedures. “They were spying on our campaign. I’ll tell you what — if that ever happened to the other side, this thing would’ve been over two years ago, and you know, it would have been treason. They would’ve called it treason. And that’s what it is — it was treason. And it should never be allowed to happen to another president again. Ever, ever, ever.”

Trump’s accusation is transparently meritless, but that’s beside the point. Heading into his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump — with help from Barr — is trying to establish a narrative that the entire investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia stemmed from anti-Trump bias in the law enforcement and intelligence communities, not his campaign’s secretive contacts with people in the Kremlin’s orbit. Trump wants to portray himself as a victim and Obama-era officials as bad actors who had it out for him from the beginning.

Trump’s audience seemed ready to get on board, cheering his accusations of treason and then breaking out in “lock them up!” chants. Trump basked in the chants for a moment before threatening to sic Barr on law enforcement officials who investigated him.

“Well, we have a great new attorney general who is going to give it a very fair look,” Trump said.

Barr, for his part, doesn’t seem troubled by Trump’s threat to use trumped-up charges against his perceived political enemies. During an interview on Fox News last week, Barr hit back at Democratic leaders who accused him of lying under oath during his congressional testimony and seemed to threaten to investigate them, saying, “they may be concerned about the outcome of a review of what happened during the election.”

During an interview with the Wall Street Journal that was published on Monday, Barr insisted he’s protecting the presidency, not just Trump. Barr has already announced he’s launched an investigation into the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign.

The “lock them up!” chants weren’t the only time Trump’s fans called for summary imprisonment of his enemies on Monday night. When Trump brought up Hillary Clinton earlier during the rally, his audience responded with resounding boos and the classic “lock her up!” chants.

Trump’s latest rally came hours after he suffered a defeat in federal court

Trump’s rally came hours after Judge Amit Mehta of the DC District Court decisively ruled against Trump in his effort to prevent House Democrats from subpoenaing 10 years of his financial records from the accounting firm Mazars USA. While the White House is sure to appeal Mehta’s ruling, it indicates that Trump’s strategy of stonewalling all congressional subpoenas may be a losing one.

Asked about the ruling just before taking off to Pennsylvania for his rally, Trump suggested he doesn’t think he needs to listen to judges who were appointed by Democratic presidents.

“Well, we disagree with that ruling — it’s crazy,” Trump said. “This never happened to any other president ... it’s totally the wrong decision by obviously an Obama-appointed judge. He was a recent Obama-appointed judge.”

But Mehta’s ruling opens by discussing how another president, James Buchanan, raised similar concerns about congressional oversight but ended up having to submit to it anyway — a history that contradicts Trump’s claim he’s being treated unfairly.

“Courts have grappled for more than a century with the question of the scope of Congress’s investigative power,” Mehta wrote. “The binding principle that emerges from these judicial decisions is that courts must presume Congress is acting in furtherance of its constitutional responsibility to legislate and must defer to congressional judgments about what Congress needs to carry out that purpose.”

Attorney General Barr is powerless to stop the DC District Court from ruling against Trump. But if the fight over subpoenas makes its way to the US Supreme Court — whose balance has shifted to the right due to Trump’s nominations of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — the extent to which Congress will be empowered to conduct oversight on a president who is clearly interested in using the powers of the state against his enemies is unclear.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.