Will "lock him up" be the Democrats' 2020 rallying cry?
Nancy Pelosi suggested this week that Democratic leaders should look beyond the short-term question of whether to pursue impeachment against President Trump – something the House speaker is loath to do considering the high political risk and low chance of success – to the possibility of pursuing charges against him once he leaves office.
Pelosi, D-Calif., reportedly referenced this scenario in a meeting with Democrats this week. Politico reported that the House speaker told top committee chairmen: “I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison.”
In doing so, she dramatically raised the stakes in the battle between the White House and Congress over the president's conduct, taking Washington's already-overheated partisan discord into new territory. And the call presented a talking point that could soon make its way to the 2020 presidential campaign trail, where many candidates support impeachment. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., hinted Wednesday at going a step further when she said on MSNBC that “no one is above the law” and if Trump were any other person he’d be “carried out in handcuffs.”
Pelosi reportedly made the "prison" statement in a meeting this week with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass.
When asked about Pelosi’s statement, her spokeswoman, Ashley Etienne said the speaker had a “productive meeting about the state of play with [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller report. They agreed to keep all options on the table and continue to move forward with an aggressive hearing and legislative strategy, as early as next week, to address the president’s corruption and abuses of power uncovered in the report.”
Several House Democratic sources told Fox News that Pelosi has said similar things about Trump in past caucus meetings, such as “we should go down there and arrest the man.” The sources said Pelosi is trying to put any action off until after the election, making the case that Democrats should defeat Trump in 2020 -- and then seek prosecution after he leaves office.
This stunning strategy, however, spurred outcry from Republicans, especially considering Democrats’ condemnation of Trump for the “lock her up” chants directed at Hillary Clinton over her email scandal during 2016 campaign rallies.
“I think [her comment] clearly shows the true colors of Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Party,” Mercedes Schlapp, White House director of strategic communications, said on Fox News' “America’s Newsroom” Thursday. “They are focused and obsessed with investigation after investigation, despite the fact that the president of the United States and the administration has been transparent throughout this entire process. We’re moving on, Robert Mueller is moving on.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed disbelief over Pelosi's reported "prison" comments.
“She didn’t say that!” Grassley said Thursday when asked about Pelosi’s remarks.
He later added: “To go to prison you’ve got to violate a law. What law did he violate?”
A spokesperson from the National Republican Congressional Committee also blasted the comments in a statement.
“What more did you expect from the socialist Democrats?” the NRCC spokesperson said. “After all, they wanted to get rid of President Trump since the day after he was elected.”
Even if Trump is defeated, however, it is far from clear whether a subsequent administration's Justice Department would contemplate charges, whether on alleged obstruction or another alleged offense. "Lock her up" chants in 2016 were just that -- and did not foreshadow charges for Clinton under the Trump administration, though the president reportedly wanted them.
Even without launching official impeachment proceedings against the president, top committees -- led by Schiff, Nadler, Cummings, Neal and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif. -- are in the midst of high-profile, Trump-focused investigations, with some seeking financial and tax documents and others seeking testimony from current and former administration officials.
The House Judiciary Committee has already voted to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress and has threatened to do the same for other administration officials failing to comply with committee-issued subpoenas.
Despite Pelosi’s repeated comments signaling reluctance to begin impeachment, some top Democrats suggest the process is already underway.
“We’ve got all these committees doing their work, we’re having hearings, we’ve already won two court cases and there are other cases that are still to be determined, so why should we get out in front of this process?” House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Meanwhile, Nadler, whose committee would oversee any impeachment proceedings, has reportedly pressed Pelosi to allow his panel to start down that path.
But even as House committees are intensifying their Trump-focused probes, Schiff, D-Calif., recently said that impeachment is “destined for failure” without Republican support in the Senate.
“I think we’re going to do what is right for the country, and at this point, the speaker has not reached the conclusion, and I haven’t either, that it’s best for the country to put us through an impeachment proceeding that we know will, is, destined for failure in the Senate,” Schiff said on ABC News’ “This Week” Sunday.
He added that the president’s “conduct qualifies” as “high crimes and misdemeanors” and that if Trump "continues to stonewall" Congress and "demonstrate his unfitness for office," congressional Democrats could move forward.
"There may be little additional cost to going through that process, even if unsuccessful in the Senate," Schiff said. "But we're not there yet and I think if it is a close call, close calls go against putting the country through that."
The growing calls for impeachment were again spurred last week, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller made his only public statement related to the Russia investigation. Mueller said that “charging the president with a crime was not an option” his team could consider, citing longstanding Justice Department policy that states a sitting president cannot be indicted.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that,” Mueller said. “We concluded that we would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime.”
The House, starting next week, will hold hearings "focused on the alleged crimes and other misconduct laid out in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report."
Fox News' Mike Emanuel, Chad Pergram, and Jared Halpern contributed to this report.