President Trump’s refusal again Tuesday to apologize for his stance on the Central Park Five was consistent with his past rhetoric about the group of young black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of rape and assault in New York in 1989.
But that view is hard to reconcile with one of the central planks of his 2020 campaign’s argument to black voters — that he is a champion of criminal justice reform.
When White House reporter April Ryan asked Trump about his stance on the case Tuesday before he headed to an Orlando rally to kick off his reelection, Trump replied: “Why do you bring that up now? It’s an interesting time to bring that up."
The reason the Central Park Five story is relevant again is the recent release of the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” which focuses on the boys’ wrongful conviction and their years in prison. Since its premiere, it has been the most watched series on the streaming network in the United States.
Days after a young white woman was brutally raped and beaten while jogging in Central Park, Trump spent more than $80,000 on full-page ads in four New York City newspapers demanding that the death penalty be reinstated so that the five black and Latino teenagers suspected of the crime could be executed.
Years later, the men were exonerated with the help of another man’s confession and DNA evidence. By the time they received a $41 million settlement from the city of New York, they had already spent much of their youths behind bars.
And there’s been significant fallout for those partly responsible for the wrongful conviction. Linda Fairstein, former head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, supervised the investigation, including the controversial interrogations, that led to the teenagers’ convictions. Not long after the miniseries came out, Vassar College reviewed Fairstein’s position on its board of trustees before the college’s president announced that she had resigned from the board. And Safe Horizon, a nonprofit group serving victims of violence, accepted Fairstein’s resignation from its board.
Elizabeth Lederer, the former assistant district attorney who led the prosecution in the case, resigned her teaching position at Columbia Law School after protests and backlash from black students and others in the university community.
But Trump remains unapologetic for his belief in the men’s guilt and suitability for the death penalty.
“You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt,” Trump said Tuesday, referring to what the men say were coerced, inconsistent confessions. “Some of the prosecutors think the city should never have settled that case, and we’ll leave it at that.”
Trump’s position on the Central Park Five came up repeatedly during his presidential run as a testament to his history of negative views toward black and Latino people. It is part of a larger narrative that probably hurt him with black and Latino voters.
But the president’s insistence on the guilt of the wrongfully convicted teens — and his belief that they should have been executed — could prove a new challenge for him in 2020.
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reported on Trump’s reelection campaign aiming at gaining more support from black and Latino Americans, groups that now give him low approval ratings, according to Gallup. “The campaign will talk about the economy, as expected, and for black voters will talk about the criminal justice reform bill that Trump signed last year,” Bump wrote. "To make its pitch, the campaign says it will target strategic areas, like Detroit and its suburbs and Arizona.”
Trump regularly points to his support for criminal justice reform when he is accused of racism. In December, the president signed the First Step Act, a bill that made significant revisions to mandatory minimum sentences for several drug offenses. The bill will also allow certain nonviolent offenders to earn time credits if they participate in programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
The First Step Act has been years in the making and stalled under the Obama administration because of a lack of support from Republicans in the Senate. That changed when Trump expressed his support for criminal justice reform, in part because of concerns on both sides of the aisle about the mass incarceration complex.
The president could have a hard time convincing voters of color that he cares about justice when he is unwilling to apologize for his own decades-long, unjust treatment of the Central Park Five.
Trump seems to want to convince black voters that he is passionate about changing how the government treats Americans who are incarcerated, but at a personal level, he seems unable to budge in the face of evidence.