Speaking to law enforcement officers on Long Island on Friday, the president appeared to sanction officers roughing up suspects after arresting them and while putting them into their vehicles.
"When you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in — rough — I said, 'Please don't be too nice,'" Trump said. "Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you're protecting their head, you know? The way you put your hand — like, don't hit their head, and they've just killed somebody? Don't hit their head? I said, 'You can take the hand away, okay.'"
Some officers present applauded.
You can add this to the lengthy pantheon of examples of Trump subtly — and not so subtly — advocating a form of violence against those he deems bad people without due process. During the campaign, he repeatedly urged the roughing up of protesters, even getting sued over inciting violence in one case. Trump repeatedly spoke fondly of a time when hecklers were dealt with more severely. He promised to pay the legal bills of supporters who got too rough. He mouthed that he would "beat the crap" out of someone. He defended his supporters for beating up a man who Trump claimed had been violent first.
Trump's comments Friday occupy a similar zone of plausible deniability. He didn't technically say that police should be violent while taking suspects into custody. He instead said "please don't be so nice" and "take the hand away" from their heads when putting them into cars. Trump's message wasn't so much "beat them up" as "don't worry too much about them getting beat up." It was less "do something" and more "be a little more negligent."
But we don't have to look too far in the rear view to recall the potential perils of such an approach — and the national outcry it can cause. Freddie Gray died in Baltimore in April 2015 after a spinal injury that occurred in the back of a police van. Prosecutors said Gray had been given a "rough ride" in the van, causing the injuries that would kill him a week later. In other words, police need not bash a suspect's head while putting him in the squad car to inflict violence.
Trump sided with the officers in that case. After the last of the charges against them was dropped, he targeted State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby. "I think it was disgraceful what she did and the way she did it, and the news conference that she had where they were guilty before anybody knew the facts," Trump said. He added: "I think she ought to prosecute herself." Mosby was later sued by the officers.
And at the very least, his approach would seem to inflame the already sensitive issue of police brutality. With so many high-profile debates over the shootings of black men in recent years, Trump has generally sided with police officers. Earlier this year, he embraced a "Blue Lives Matter" effort to increase penalties for those who target police.
But even against that backdrop, telling police that they can actually be rougher when dealing with suspects is an unprecedented step. Expect plenty of debate over this in the days to come.