“It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about,” Trump told reporters and columnists at The New York Times Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”
Trump told the Times, regarding his supporters, “I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.”
He thought wrong.
Many of Trump’s more high-profile fans, surrogates, and allies are angry about this about-face and insist “Crooked Hillary”—as Trump dubbed her throughout the campaign—be locked up.
“I’m hearing from people who are livid at Hillary, they’re still mad,” Rush Limbaugh, the famous conservative talk show host, said on Tuesday afternoon. “There are a lot of people who really thought that when Trump said ‘You oughta be in jail,’ that they agreed with that and thought that she should be!”
“Whoa! I thought we elected [Donald Trump] president,” Ann Coulter, conservative pundit and one of Trump’s most loyal media boosters, tweeted in response to the news. “Did we make him the FBI, & DOJ? His job is to pick those guys, not do their jobs.
“As happy as I am that our long national nightmare’s over, NO president [should] be blocking investigators from doing their jobs. #EqualUnderLaw,” she continued.
Coulter wasn’t alone in her frustration. Calls to imprison Clinton, wasn’t a passing idea in the Trump campaign—it was a central tenet. After all, this reversal comes after a long campaign during which Trump and his allies and his surrogates had made “LOCK HER UP!” chants and “Hillary for Prison” swag staples of Trump rallies.
Former tea-party congressman Joe Walsh, who tweeted in July that “Hillary Clinton should be in prison,” didn’t seem too pleased, either.
“When he said ‘Lock her up’ what he really meant was ‘Help her heal,’” Walsh tweeted sarcastically on Tuesday.
Others tried to look for loopholes in Trump’s statements, and tried to find hope in the slight ambiguity of his statement.
“That doesn’t mean that [the Department of] Justice wouldn’t do it,” Al Baldasaro, a Trump supporter and New Hampshire lawmaker who called for the execution of Hillary Clinton during the campaign, told The Daily Beast. “It’s not that he’s not going to do it. He’s going to let Congress do their job… It’s going to continue its investigations.”
The media, Baldasaro said, was trying to “find something that’s not there.”
Bill Mitchell, a small-time talk-show host and a fervent Trump supporter, suggested the president-elect was pulling a Machiavellian maneuver.
“You may be upset Trump has signaled he will not ‘persecute Hillary,’ but you will see in short the this was brilliant strategic positioning,” he wrote on Twitter. “When Trump looks at an apple, he doesn’t just see the apple, he sees the soil and the tree and the farmer and the rain. Trust him.”
Others are making peace with Trump’s decision by hiding behind their supposed cynicism of politics. Limbaugh, who has rallied Trump supporters through the latter end of the campaign with anti-Clinton rantings, claims now that he never really believed Trump would have gone through with his promise.
“I never expected Trump to actually prosecute her,” he said on his show. “And the reason is… I’m falling back on what some of the standard protocols for politics are after victory and this just, we in America do not prosecute defeated political enemies... If he did it, it was going to be icing on the cake for me. But I never expected him to do it.”
The president doesn’t have the authority to put individuals in jail, but has influence over the process: Trump told Clinton during a presidential debate in October, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation… we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.” He then added that if he were in charge, she’d “be in jail.”
But now that he’s entering office, Trump is not so sure—and it raises questions about how serious he was about any of his promises, to the chagrin of his most ardent backers.
—with additional reporting by Andrew Kirell