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Donald Trump’s doubling down on the Central Park Five reflects a bigger problem

Kharey Wise as he was arraigned in the Central Park jogger rape case. (John Pedin/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images).

In June 2015, Kevin Richardson sat down at home and did the sort of thing that many people do each day. He flipped his TV, turned to cable news and watched Donald Trump declare his intention to seek the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

Trump's speech turned to claims that Mexican illegal immigrants are “bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” who would be removed from the country under a President Trump, no exceptions.

Full speech text: Donald Trump announces a presidential bid

“It was exactly what Trump did to me, to us,” Richardson, one of the five black and Latino teens convicted of a rape in Central Park — they were later exonerated — and sentenced to substantial prison time. Trump became a part of this widely reported and closely followed crime story when, two weeks after the teens were arrested, he spent a reported $85,000 placing full-page ads in all four major New York daily newspapers.

“Just like those ads, that speech was a call for extreme action based on a whole set of completely false claims. It seems,” Richardson said, “that this man is for some strange reason obsessed with sex and rape and black and Latino men.”

Trump's 1989 ads never mentioned the teens by name, but they made reference to the rape in Central Park, the need to infringe on the civil liberties of some to protect the law-abiding many, to demonstrate the strength and commitment to reclaim the city from out-of-control groups of criminals and demanded the restoration of the death penalty in New York state.

The ads were some of Trump's first forays into public matters not connected to development or real estate. They seemed to justify and feed a lynch-mob mentality around the case, several elected officials and some of the Central Park Five told me. And, they are, in many ways, early proof that Trump's demonstrated habits of scapegoating and group-based suspicion, his insistence that either can be a solid basis for public policy, have been nurtured for some time.

This week, when confronted again with just how wrong he was about the Central Park Five, Trump not only refused to acknowledge widely reported and well-known facts or the court's official actions in the case. He did not simply refuse to apologize: He described the men as guilty, and then demonstrated, once again, that he is a master at the dark art of using long-standing racial fears, stereotypes and anxieties to advance his personal and political goals.

He used the Central Park Five to differentiate himself from his political opponent. He stoked support for solutions inconsistent with the law. And he refused to admit any error. In doing so, Trump showed himself to be genuinely willing to say the impolitic, to take a harder-than-hard stand on crime and to do or say anything to best and punish those who he believes have committed crimes.

“I would say this obsession of his is one of the strangest things I have ever heard of,” Richardson told me, “except we know that it's not exactly rare, that it's been used to whip up lynch mobs and pass laws and take people's lives at the end of a rope in this country before. Really, as I sat there and listened to him, realizing this is real, not some kind of joke, my stomach started to turn. It really made me physically ill. Donald Trump was at it again, this time to take control of the country.”

Richardson, by the way, said all of this to me in March, when I interviewed some of the Central Park Five for The Washington Post's book, “Trump Revealed.” This week, Richardson's alarm, his sense that Trump is a skilled manipulator of long-standing stereotypes and anxieties for personal gain, does not seem far-fetched at all.

To put a finer point on it, Richardson and Korey Wise, who I also interviewed, are two of five black and Latino teenage boys, now men, who were wrongfully convicted on coerced confessions that were full of details inconsistent with the crime scene and evidence.

When the rape occurred, the teens were in police custody, rounded up with others on suspicion that they had been involved in other crimes in the park that night. When prosecutors took each of the five to trial, they were aware that they had no DNA linking any of them to the rape and did have DNA evidence linking a sixth, then-unidentified man to the crime. The actual rapist later confessed to the crime, but each of the Central Park Five had already served substantial prison terms and been released.

All of this, repeat, every bit of this, has been reported many times in many different media outlets. As a New Yorker, Trump would have, at points, been surrounded by news of the aforementioned findings and the reasons that the city settled for $40 million with the Central Park Five.

Wise — who served the longest term of all the wrongfully convicted teens and eventually crossed paths with the real Central Park rapist in prison, setting off a chain of events that got the convictions tossed out — said the content of Trump's campaign is really a continuation of those 1989 ads.

“Listen, when you have been through the things that I have, that we have, you know from experience that there will always be suspicion that some people, maybe a lot of people will always have about you for the rest of your life,” Wise told me in May.

One of the Central Park Five so feared the stigma of the crime that after his release he left New York and used a different name.

“But few people have had the experience of having a multibillionaire man, a big-time New York businessman who people admire putting out an ad on you, encouraging people to understand you, to think about you as an animal,” he said. “Donald Trump told the world that my life had no value, no quality. And he's still saying pretty much the same thing today.”

That thing, Wise and Richardson told me, is the repeated turn to old and ugly ideas about race, ethnicity and criminality and unrepentant support for the most extreme punishment regardless of the facts. That thing is also Trump's remarkable skill making overt and veiled references to those old and ugly ideas to galvanize people, to rile them up, for his own aims without regard for the dangers this can unleash.

“What kind of a leader, really, could that kind of person be?” Wise said. “Really. That ought to give everybody in America something to think about.”

Richardson put it another way: “The country is on the verge of possibly electing a mad man who actually does not care if what he says is right or wrong, true or false. There are people voting for a man who has lived his life this way for a long time. He's asking them to give him real power. That, to me, is just scary.”

Interestingly, the Central Park Five's outrage about Trump's campaign and his continued baseless accusations about their guilt has not been joined by a chorus even approaching the size of the Trump is a misogynist collective so vocal today.

Five men wrongly convicted and imprisoned in the 1989 beating and rape of a Central Park jogger have agreed to settle with New York City for about $40 million. The proposed settlement would give the "Central Park Five" about $1 million for each year of imprisonment. Here are seven other notable exoneration cases. (Video: Kiratiana Freelon, Natalie Jennings and Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)