image of Trump, Clinton overlaid with email page

Credit: Molly Butler/Media Matters | Photos via Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

Research/Study Research/Study

Conservative media are adamant that a criminal investigation is disqualifying for presidential candidates – unless it's Donald Trump

Right-wing media used the email investigation to condemn Hillary Clinton as unfit to be president ahead of the 2016 election. For 2024, Donald Trump gets a free pass.

In stark contrast to their condemnation of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, right-wing media have been defending former President Donald Trump, who now faces four separate criminal indictments while seeking reelection to the presidency. In 2016, conservative personalities responded to then-FBI Director James Comey reopening the Clinton email investigation by questioning Clinton’s suitability to be president, claiming it would interfere with her presidency and cause a “constitutional crisis,” arguing that Clinton should be disqualified from running, and denouncing the notion of a president who’s been indicted.

Below are several examples highlighting the contrast between right-wing media’s treatment of the two candidates in 2016 and today:

  • Right-wing media have defended Trump as he faces four criminal indictments while seeking reelection

    • Minutes after the news of Trump’s first federal indictment broke, Fox host Jesse Watters, without seeing the indictment or knowing what Trump had been charged with, reacted by saying, “The country's not going to stand for it.” His co-host Greg Gutfeld claimed that the indictment demonstrated Democrats were “hunting” Republicans. [Fox News, The Five, 3/30/23, 3/30/23]
    • Fox News contributor and The Federalist editor-in-chief Mollie Hemingway compared the indictment to “the Stalin era.” She continued to say that “people who care about the country need to stand up and make sure that they let it be known that they do not support this type of political prosecution.” [Fox News, Special Report with Bret Baier, 3/30/23]
    • Fox host Jeanine Pirro declared that the indictment “reeks of Third World country tactics.” She added that Trump “is being persecuted, not just prosecuted, but persecuted.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 3/30/23]
    • On Jesse Watters Primetime, Trump attorney Alina Habba dismissed Trump’s second indictment as a “coordinated dance” to distract from investigations into the Biden administration. She added, the indictment meant it was “so obvious that there is this dual system of justice. This is selective prosecution — selective persecution. It is absolute persecution." [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 6/8/23]
    • Before ending a furious rant with the ominous threat, “You have crossed the Rubicon twice … and we will never forgive you,” Fox host Mark Levin declared that “June 8 is the day of the insurrection, not January 6,” and compared the U.S. to Stalinist Russia: “Let me say this. Today — what is today's date? June 8? June 8 is the day of insurrection, not January 6. … We have never seen anything like this in the United States. We saw it under Stalin. We have seen it in other autocracies, Marxist regimes, fascist regimes, the Third World.” [Fox News, Hannity, 6/8/23]
    • Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo suggested that Trump’s crime was “saying that he thought that the election was stolen.” Bartiromo cited Fox contributor Jonathan Turley’s claim that the third indictment lacks legitimacy, stating, “A similar sentiment talked about this being free speech, so what's the charge? What's the crime? Him saying that he thought that the election was stolen: That's the crime.” [Fox Business Network, Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, 8/2/23]
    • Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich called the indictment the “criminalization … of disinformation and misinformation.” She also argued that “the left believes that you should go to prison for saying things.” [Fox Business Network, The Bottom Line, 8/1/23]
    • Fox prime-time host Laura Ingraham argued that the indictment was a violation of Trump’s right to free speech. Ingraham quoted the indictment to note that “the defendant had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election” and that Trump had the right “even to claim falsely there had been an outcome-determinative fraud during the election and that he had won.” Ingraham then argued, “So they concede that he had the right to have a different opinion. But, what? So they throw that in there to try to protect themselves, Bret, but then they violate what they claim they are still protecting.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 8/1/23]
    • After Trump’s fourth indictment, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade attacked Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, asking, “Does anyone think she is an arbiter of justice?” He went on to question the timing of the indictment announcement, adding, “Yet two and a half years [of investigating] and you’ve got to wait until 11 o’clock on a Monday to announce it? And then she puts out a meme — retweets a meme — about Lindsey Graham. Does anyone think she is an arbiter of justice?” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 8/15/23]
    • On Fox News’ Jesse Watters Primetime, guest host Pete Hegseth scoffed that “every time, and we mean every time, there’s a bombshell about Hunter, there’s immediate news about another Trump indictment.” He continued to chide that “‘the Bidens aren’t doing anything illegal,’ they say, ‘Look at Trump! He’s the criminal!’ This might explain why they are fast-tracking the Georgia case, and they are.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 8/14/23]
    • Levin attacked the latest indictment, claiming that “Stalin would be proud. I'm sure Putin’s proud. I’m sure enemies are celebrating.” He continued, “Congress is supposed to make all these final decisions. You're not supposed to criminalize the challenging of electors or dual electors or counting of votes and that sort of thing." [Fox News, Hannity, 8/14/23]
  • In 2016, right-wing media attacked the idea of a president who may be indicted and pardoned during their presidency

    • Former Fox host Eric Bolling expressed concern that if Hillary Clinton “gets indicted or even worse, gets found guilty of a felony, you would have a felon as a president who would have to step down.” He added, “Hillary Clinton — the judgment has to be in question right now.” [Fox News, The Five, 10/28/16]
    • After Fox contributor Doug Schoen said it’s possible that Hillary Clinton could be pardoned if she became president, Fox host Sean Hannity yelled over him, saying, “Really? Is that what you want for your country?” Appearing as a guest on the show, Pirro claimed independents had “Clinton fatigue” and were “sick and tired of all these scandals.” [Fox News, Hannity, 10/28/16
    • Current Republican presidential candidate Larry Elder tweeted, “This FBI probe WON'T be over by Nov. 8. Voters must decide if they want to vote for someone who may be indicted after her election. #Comey” [Twitter/X, 10/28/16]
    • In response to a tweet about Hillary Clinton legally being allowed to pardon herself or be pardoned, Fox host Steve Doocy mockingly tweeted, “No, that wouldn't cause a problem…” [Twitter/X, 10/31/16]
    • Frequent Newsmax guest and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp tweeted, “If hillary wins which is very unsure now will be the first president to be sworn in for office and for a deposition at same time. History” [Twitter/X, 11/1/2016]
    • Bolling asked, “Can you imagine the president-elect is under indictment?” [Fox News, The Five, 11/2/16]
    • Prior to being ousted from TheBlaze, current Fox contributor and Outkick host Tomi Lahren tweeted, “Do you realize Hillary may have to pardon herself if elected next Tuesday? Let that sink in.” [Deadline, 3/27/2017; Twitter/X, 11/2/2016]
  • Conservative personalities argued that Clinton should be disqualified from the election due to the investigations or a potential indictment

    • In an interview with Fox’s chief political anchor Bret Baier, Donald Trump said, “The system is rigged when she's allowed to run because she has done many criminal acts. She's not allowed to run. She's not allowed to be running in this election.” [Fox News, Special Report with Bret Baier, 10/28/16
    • Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) cited U.S. Code § 2071 to suggest Hillary Clinton should be disqualified from holding office. U.S. Code § 2071 states that whoever “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.” [Fox News, Sunday Morning Futures, 10/30/16]
  • Right-wing media claimed the investigation would negatively interfere with Clinton’s presidency

    • Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett wrote an opinion piece for Fox News in which he stated, “A Hillary Clinton presidency may be engulfed and disabled by scandal. Make that plural -- scandals.” He continued, “As a consequence, she is likely to accomplish little on behalf of the American people.  In other words, her presidency could be dead on arrival the moment she is sworn into office.” [Fox News, 10/28/16]
    • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “The American people are about to have a candidate who is clearly going to be under criminal investigation for the entire first and second year of her presidency, if she could even survive it.” [Fox News, Hannity, 10/28/16
    • Then-Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway suggested the reopened investigation would affect Clinton’s presidency: “Do we want to take the chance to put somebody in the Oval who then will bring us all through this continuing nightmare?” [Fox News, Justice with Judge Jeanine, 10/29/16]
    • Fox contributor Marc Thiessen wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, “Get ready for four more years of Clinton scandals,” in which he claimed,“If Hillary Clinton wins, the cycle of scandals, lies, investigations and coverups will continue unabated for the next four years.” [The Washington Post, 10/31/16]
    • Gingrich tweeted, “A vote for @HillaryClinton is a vote for four years of corruption, investigation, and gridlock.” [Twitter/X, 11/3/16]
    • National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted, “So Hillary Clinton is the first presidential nominee under investigation by two separate divisions of the FBI.” [Twitter/X, 11/3/16
    • Fox contributor Charlie Hurt remarked that it was “extraordinary” to have a presidential candidate “who is going to go in under a criminal investigation by the federal government that she's then going to take control over.” [Fox News, Special Report with Bret Baier, 11/3/16]
    • Megyn Kelly asked then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz if “we’re in for at least two years of investigations” if Clinton became president. Chaffetz, who is now a Fox contributor, pledged that Congress would “clean up the mess that Hillary Clinton made at the State department” whether she was elected or not. [Fox News, The Kelly File, 11/3/16]
    • Failed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said a Clinton presidency would be “a disaster for the country” and argued that she would be “the most distracted president ever to take the oath of office, because these things are not going to go away.” He added that Clinton had a “disregard for the law” and speculated that she would “use all the powers of government to go and punish” her political enemies. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 11/6/16
    • Bartiromo asked then-Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), “Can [Clinton] govern effectively if she’s got these investigations going on?” Sessions replied, “Well, it is a dangerous thing, no doubt. It puts a cloud over her tenure as president.” [Fox News, Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo, 11/6/16]
    • After the 2016 election, Bolling claimed that liberals were “continu[ing] to whine and make excuses” about Clinton’s loss rather than acknowledge her “blatant corruption.”  He then played a clip of then-candidate Trump on the campaign trail in which he said that Clinton “shouldn’t be allowed to run.” Trump continued, ”We could very well have a sitting president under felony indictment and ultimately a criminal trial. Her current scandals and controversies will continue throughout her presidency and will make it virtually impossible for her to govern or lead our country." [Fox News, Hannity, 12/19/16]
  • Right-wing media claimed that a federal investigation during Clinton’s presidency would cause a “constitutional crisis”

    • Pirro declared, “We’re on the precipice of yet another constitutional crisis because of the Clintons.” [Fox News, Justice with Judge Jeanine, 10/30/16]
    • Former Fox correspondent Carl Cameron reported Trump’s suggestion that a Clinton presidency could cause a “‘constitutional crisis.’” Cameron added that “the inference” of Trump’s quote was “impeachment.” [Fox News, On the Record with Brit Hume, 10/31/16]
    • Hannity echoed Trump’s claims that electing Clinton would bring on a constitutional crisis, saying, “Hillary Clinton could be sworn into office while still being under investigation from the FBI, which would then put this country into a major constitutional crisis.” Hannity went on to insinuate that Clinton was unfit to serve as president, saying, “She, and she alone, has created a situation that could do severe damage to this country and the office of the presidency.” [Fox News, Hannity, 10/31/16]
    • On The Mark Levin Show website, Levin summarized his October 31, 2016, radio show, which included the claims that a Clinton presidency would create “a constitutional crisis” and suggested that her election could lead the country to become a banana republic. [The Mark Levin Show, 10/31/16
  • Right-wing media questioned Clinton’s judgment and suitability to be president due to investigations and a potential indictment

    • Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kimberley Strassel warned, “A Hillary Clinton presidency will be built, from the ground up, on self-dealing, crony favors, and an utter disregard for the law.” [The Wall Street Journal, 10/27/16]
    • Current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted his statement, which read, “Today’s news of the FBI’s decision to reopen its investigation into Secretary Clinton once again showcases her fundamental lack of judgment and disregard for protecting and handling of our nation’s highly classified secrets.” [Twitter/X, 10/28/16
    • Daily Wire host Matt Walsh tweeted, “Now liberals just have to decide if they'll debase themselves by voting for someone under active FBI investigation.” He added, “I imagine they will.” [Twitter/X, 10/28/16]
    • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeted, “Elected officials, no matter how high their position, should be held accountable for criminal conduct. The rule of law matters.” [Twitter/X, 10/28/16]
    • Conservative columnist Phil Kerpen tweeted, “For too long people under criminal investigation for espionage have been told they can't accomplish their dreams. #HRod2016 #BreakTheCeiling” [Twitter/X, 10/28/16]
    • The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld questioned Clinton’s judgment in sharing information with top campaign aide Huma Abedin: “Hillary is surrounded by deviants. And that's a problem. And that leaves our security exposed.” [Fox News, The Five, 10/28/16
    • Kellyanne Conway claimed Clinton had “a corruption and ethics problem” as she was under a “second FBI investigation in the same year.” [Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, 10/28/16
    • Eric Bolling suggested the reopened investigation “goes to her character and decision-making.” [Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, 10/28/16
    • Longtime Fox News contributor and Washington Times columnist Monica Crowley emphasized that the “Democrat nominee for president is back under FBI investigation.” She added, “For all of the condemnation of Republicans for choosing Donald Trump as their nominee, the Dems have certainly chosen a real beaut.” [Facebook, 10/29/16]
    • Then-Trump adviser Jason Miller: “This really goes to the question, is Hillary Clinton ready to be commander-in-chief when she has all of this? This is pretty bad.” [Fox News, The Kelly File, 10/28/16
    • Conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza mocked Democratic voters: “The Democrats are in the unprecedented position of having to vote for a candidate “currently under criminal investigation.” He also included a photo of Clinton giving a side-eye in the post. [Twitter/X, 10/29/16]
    • Failed GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee declared, “America cannot elect somebody to the highest office in the land to be the commander-in-chief of all armed forces, the head of all national security, who can’t keep a simple secret, and then destroys evidence.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 10/30/16
    • Former Trump adviser Steve Cortes tweeted, “Wow. The more we learn, the worse it looks. Hillary and Huma can never occupy the Oval Office.” [Twitter/X, 10/30/16]
    • Megyn Kelly compared Clinton mishandling emails to Trump sexually assaulting women, arguing, “If she's lying and misleading and dodging and weaving with the FBI and surrounding herself with people who do the same, it's a character issue for her.” [Fox News, The Kelly File, 11/1/16]
    • In an exchange with Hannity, then-Fox contributor Laura Ingraham said that “Democrats have to think about” the “stench of corruption” that Clinton represents. [Fox News, Hannity, 11/2/16]
    • Current Fox contributor and former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted, “A vote for Hillary is a vote to bring an unprecedented level of corruption back to Washington. #HillaryIndictment” [Twitter/ X, 11/3/16]
    • Ronna McDaniel, current chairwoman of the the Republican National Committee, tweeted, “Endless scandal is a given if #CrookedHillary wins the White House.” McDaniel linked to a New York Post article warning “she’ll head into office under the cloud of two major FBI investigations, including one that’s reportedly “likely” to lead to an indictment.” [Twitter/X, 11/4/16]
    • In an interview with Kellyanne Conway, Watters described Clinton as “the corrupt person” while “Donald Trump now is trying to drain the swamp.” Conway added, “Is she fit to be president? Is she qualified? Does she even have the right to run, given everything that we know about this constant ethical stain and cloud of corruption following her?” [Fox News, Watters’ World, 11/5/16
    • Later, Watters said, “Trump’s the law and order candidate, and now it looks like Hillary’s running from the law.” Fox contributor Katie Pavlich lamented, “Unfortunately, prison at this point for Hillary Clinton is a long shot.” [Fox News, Watters’ World, 11/5/16
    • When asked by then-Fox anchor Chris Wallace whether the FBI investigation had “hurt Clinton,” former George W. Bush White House press secretary and Fox anchor Dana Perino said it “reaffirmed preexisting beliefs” that she was “dishonest.” [Fox News, Fox News Sunday, 11/6/16]
    • Pirro unequivocally stated, “We cannot have a country led by a president subject to ongoing criminal investigations, potential indictments, and never-ending hearings.” [Fox News, Justice with Judge Jeanine, 11/6/16
    • Conway tweeted, “If FBI conclusions remain unchanged, that means she still was reckless & careless, still lied about classified info, lied re: # of devices.” [Twitter/X, 11/6/16