The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s approach to crime and punishment is centered on his own power

The inverted criminal justice of President Trump

President Trump told governors in a meeting at the White House on Feb. 10 that “people will be getting the death penalty in China now for fentanyl.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This article has been updated.

President Trump’s approach to law and order is informed to some significant extent by having lived in New York City at its most dangerous. His infamous call for the restoration of the death penalty after the rape of a jogger in Central Park — a crime for which a group of black and Hispanic teenagers were falsely convicted — encapsulates his approach to crime in the abstract: better that an innocent stranger be punished harshly than that someone guilty walk free.

Speaking to a group of governors on Monday, Trump again praised extremely harsh punishments as a deterrent.

“States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem,” Trump said. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that. But if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty — death penalty — with a fair but quick trial, they have very little, if any, drug problem. That includes China.”

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China, of course, is an authoritarian state for which any number of actions can result in capital punishment. Trump has at other times embraced the approach taken by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose acceptance of extrajudicial killings in his country’s war on drugs has earned international condemnation but repeated praise from Trump.

Trump’s approach to crime is uncoupled from justice. It is, instead, about the manifestation and exercise of power.

Even after the five teenagers accused of the crime in Central Park were exonerated (thanks to a jailhouse admission by a convicted rapist), Trump insisted that they must nonetheless be culpable. For Trump, it was a way to show voters that he would deploy a powerful hand against any whiff of criminal behavior — at least, when the alleged behavior came from those who stood outside Trump’s cultural and political sphere.

He similarly embraced New York’s stop-and-frisk policy on the campaign trail, despite it having been shown to be both overwhelmingly biased against nonwhite New Yorkers and, ultimately, inconsequential in preventing violent crime in the city.

As recently as last October, Trump nonetheless hailed stop-and-frisk as a solution to crime.

“I’ve told them to work with local authorities to try to change the terrible deal the city of Chicago entered into with ACLU, which ties law enforcement’s hands, and to strongly consider stop-and-frisk,” Trump said to a gathering of police chiefs in Florida. “It works, and it was meant for problems like Chicago. It was meant for it. Stop-and-frisk.”

He went on to praise his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani’s use of the tactic when he was the New York mayor.

Again, though, Trump’s approach to crime is about power, not justice. So when Giuliani’s successor, Mike Bloomberg, entered the 2020 Democratic primary and began spending millions of dollars attacking Trump, the president began criticizing Bloomberg’s history with the policy.

When CNN’s Van Jones tweeted a criticism of the racial discrimination at the heart of Bloomberg’s policy, Trump retweeted it. The emergence this week of audio of Bloomberg in 2015 defending stop-and-frisk by suggesting that police could just photocopy descriptions of murder suspects — “male, minorities, 16 to 25” — prompted Trump to tweet that Bloomberg was “RACIST.” He deleted it a short while later.

Most of Trump’s activity on Twitter Tuesday morning was dedicated to a different inversion of the criminal justice system.

Federal prosecutors on Monday recommended to a court that Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone get seven to nine years in prison following his conviction on lying to Congress and witness tampering charges that stemmed from the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Unlike others targeted in that probe — like Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen — Stone never wavered in his support of Trump, which the president clearly noticed.

“This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” Trump said of the Stone recommendation. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Calling the conviction of Stone a “miscarriage of justice” is remarkable. It was an administration of justice, criminal charges proved in court. Such convictions can be wrong (as noted above), but there’s no serious question that Stone committed the acts for which he was charged. Trump’s frustration isn’t that Stone was innocent, it’s that he’s being held to account. He’s mad about the exercise of power against Stone and not, instead, against “the other side.”

Within hours, Trump’s exercise of the power of his position yielded results on Stone’s behalf. The Department of Justice announced that it now agrees with Trump’s position and would seek a lesser sentence for Trump’s ally.

What of “the other side,” to which Trump referred, those he sees as his political opponents? He targeted them elsewhere on Tuesday, too, retweeting a conservative columnist’s criticisms of Justice Department officials whose work had led to the Mueller probe. Trump has attacked this group frequently, falsely accusing them of illegally targeting his campaign, of committing treason and of plotting a coup against him.

He has repeatedly described former FBI director James B. Comey in starkly pejorative terms, including referring to him as “scum” and a “dirty cop” in remarks last week. Trump frequently accuses his political opponents of having broken the law, a habit exemplified no more clearly than in his insistence that his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton should be locked up for … whatever he claims she might have done.

The extent to which Trump’s view of crime overlaps with his sense of power and politics is demonstrated even in his efforts to alleviate stark criminal sentences from the height of the drug war. At the end of 2018, Trump signed into law a bill that reduced some mandatory minimum sentences imposed for drug crimes. That legislation, which had bipartisan support in Congress, has become a centerpiece of Trump’s outreach to black voters, mentioned alongside the unemployment rate as examples of how he has delivered for African Americans. During the Super Bowl, his campaign ran an ad touting his pardon of a woman imprisoned for a nonviolent drug crime, hoping that it would amplify his message.

It’s hard to square that message with the one Trump presented to the governors on Monday: We should not give too harsh sentences to drug criminals if it appeals to a bloc of voters Trump wants to win over, but we should also consider executing drug criminals. We must crack down on those who would use shaky evidence as the basis of a warrant, but sentencing a convicted criminal who has long been an ally of Trump’s is a miscarriage of justice.

From a viewpoint of justice, this is inconsistent. But, again, that’s not the viewpoint Trump is applying. From the viewpoint of maximizing Trump’s power? It all fits into place.