The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump’s statement that the speed of U.S. terrorism trials ‘is a laughingstock’

Following the Oct. 31 terrorist attack, President Trump called for "stronger justice" in terrorism cases, saying the U.S. is currently a "laughingstock." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“We also have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They’ll go through court for years. And, at the end, they’ll be — who knows what happens. We need quick justice and we need strong justice —  much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.”
—President Trump, remarks to reporters, Nov. 1

After the arrest of Sayfullo Saipov, who was accused of killing eight people in Manhattan with a rental truck, allegedly in support of the Islamic State militant group, President Trump decried the U.S. legal system as “a joke” and “a laughingstock.” His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, explained later that the president “was voicing his frustration with the lengthy process that often comes with a case like this.”

Whether a legal process is lengthy is, of course, an opinion and not easily fact-checked. But it is possible to document how long it took to get from arrest or indictment to conviction in major cases.

With the help of the staff of Human Rights First, an advocacy group that supports keeping terrorism-related cases in U.S. courts, we have compiled a list of 23 major terrorism-related cases, largely drawn from a list of more than 600 terrorism-related convictions since 2001 obtained by the group from the Justice Department via a Freedom of Information Act request. (The data in the DOJ list goes through December 2015.)

In some cases, militants might have been indicted earlier but only arrived in the United States months or years later, after they were captured and extradited. In those instances, we date from when the legal process began in the United States.

You will see that in most cases, the process took less than two years — or even a year. The longest case took 35 months. One case — the failed Times Square bomber — was completed in just seven weeks. The average duration between indictment and conviction of the 23 cases is 16.2 months.

Many militants ended up pleading guilty, which attests to the strength of the government’s case. Except in a handful of indictments, it’s difficult to see much evidence for Trump’s claim that terrorists “go through court for years.” (Only seven of the 23 cases took 24 months or more between extradition or indictment and conviction.) That is also apparent from reviewing the 600 cases in the DOJ document, though we did not obtain an average for all of those cases.

We sought a comment from the White House but did not receive a response.

As we said, whether the numbers here suggest a need for “much quicker and much stronger” justice is a matter of opinion. Readers can judge for themselves.

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Keep tabs on Trump’s promises with our Trump Promise Tracker

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Needs Context
"We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock."
in remarks at the White House
Wednesday, November 1, 2017