The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden evokes a fraught history of presidents weighing in on criminal cases

On April 20, as jury deliberations continue in the trial of Derek Chauvin, President Biden said that he spoke with the family of George Floyd. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the hours before a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on three counts related to the murder of George Floyd, President Biden decided that would be a good time to weigh in on the trial. “I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict, which is — I think it’s overwhelming in my view,” Biden said. The White House strained to argue Biden somehow wasn’t actually taking sides in the case, but his meaning was clear: He believed the “right verdict” was a conviction.

As defenders of Biden’s comments pointed out, the jury was sequestered at the time and deliberating on the verdict, and it came to a decision very shortly afterward. It’s unlikely that it was even aware of his comments, much less that he influenced them. But at the least, Biden created the perception that political pressure was being brought to bear by the leader of the free world. And even with the jurors sequestered, a lengthier deliberation carried the possibility that they might have eventually become familiar with the president’s views.

Put plainly: It’s the kind of thing that’s best avoided. Theories that comments by Biden or Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) might allow Chauvin to successfully appeal his conviction are probably overwrought — for reasons we’ll get to — but caution is always the watchword in these circumstances. Critics of the trial have already been arguing that racial-justice protests and the prospect of further unrest might have created pressure on the jury; Biden’s comments, even if you agree with them, didn’t seem to serve much of any purpose so late in the process, including for his allies.

Yet this is something presidents have stumbled into repeatedly in recent decades, in ways that make you wonder how it keeps happening.

The most famous example is Richard Nixon declaring serial killer Charles Manson to be guilty before a jury reached that verdict. As Michael S. Rosenwald wrote for The Washington Post’s Retropolis in 2019, the brouhaha led a judge to hold a hearing on a potential mistrial:

Speaking to reporters while on a trip to Denver, Nixon said the media’s coverage of Manson made him out to be a “rather glamorous figure” even though he was “guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.”
That’s right: The president of the United States, a lawyer (by training) and chief champion of the Constitution (by law), had offered a verdict about an ongoing criminal trial of a madman.
“Within moments,” wrote Jeff Guinn, the author of a book on Manson and his trial, “Nixon’s remarks flashed across the national wire services,” which today is like saying Manson and Nixon immediately became a trending topic.
Lawyers for Manson and his followers immediately demanded a mistrial, portraying their deranged clients as the peace-and-love good guys when compared to Nixon’s misdeeds in Vietnam.
... Manson began waving the headline around the courtroom. Courtroom officers confiscated it quickly, but lawyers for the defendants once again asked for a mistrial. The judge held a hearing in which he asked each juror what they had seen.

The mistrial ultimately was not granted. It’s also worth noting that Nixon was convinced to quickly correct himself. “I do not know and did not intend to speculate as to whether the Tate defendants are guilty, in fact, or not,” Nixon said in a statement, adding, “The defendants should be presumed to be innocent at this stage of their trial.”

This also cropped up repeatedly during Barack Obama’s presidency.

During his first year in office, he drew a backlash for declaring that a police officer had “acted stupidly” while arresting a Black scholar from Harvard, Henry Louis Gates Jr. Obama eventually held a “beer summit” with the two men to try to defuse tensions. The same year, Obama seemed to prejudge the case against accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, referring to “when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him” — though he qualified those comments by saying: “I’m not going to be in that courtroom. That’s the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury.”

In 2011, Obama was again criticized for stating that Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, “broke the law” before Manning was convicted of leaking classified documents.

Perhaps owing to those experiences — and particularly the first one — Obama later showed more caution in weighing in on the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. (Obama did make lengthy comments about George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the latter case after the verdict was handed down.)

No recent president, though, has disregarded this matter of presidential protocol nearly as frequently as Donald Trump did.

Trump repeatedly weighed in on the guilt or innocence of various high-profile figures. In 2017, he recommended “quick justice” and floated the prospect of the death penalty and detention at Guantánamo Bay for a man accused of a truck attack in New York. He said this of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is accused of child sex trafficking: “I wish her well.” He volunteered a suggestive defense of accused killer Kyle Rittenhouse while stressing that the case was under investigation. He also repeatedly defended allies such as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort as they faced legal jeopardy, often saying they had been treated poorly and calling the underlying case, the investigation of Russian election interference, a “hoax.” Those regular comments eventually led his loyal attorney general, William P. Barr, to declare that Trump’s tweets about Justice Department matters “make it impossible for me to do my job.” (Trump later pardoned Stone and Manafort.)

Trump also, as a candidate, repeatedly suggested a treason conviction and execution for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who was held captive in Afghanistan after he deserted his post. Though his commentary on that matter decreased as president, Trump said in late 2017 of the case, “I think people have heard my comments in the past.”

In echoes of the fallout from Nixon’s comment about Manson, Bergdahl’s attorneys sought to use those words while arguing for a judge to overturn his conviction. As with Nixon and Manson, the effort failed in 2019 in an Army appeals court. But last month, Bergdahl’s attorneys signaled they will try again in federal court.

To this point, there is little reason to believe a president’s comments will assist Bergdahl in going free. Nixon’s comments arguably went further than many of the above, but they weren’t enough to allow Manson to skate.

But just because they don’t imperil the prosecution’s case or a conviction doesn’t mean they are well advised.

There are obviously competing pressures here, particularly when it comes to cases involving issues of race and justice. Many in this country believe the courts have been derelict in allowing police officers to escape justice after killing Black people. Even after Chauvin’s conviction, activists cautioned that one case doesn’t signal a sudden and lasting shift in that paradigm. Biden coming out and saying simply “let the justice system work” wouldn’t be an acceptable message for those arguing that the justice system simply hasn’t worked — and hasn’t for a long time.

But it’s also possible to massage the issue more gently without looking as if you’re prejudging a case and putting your weighty political thumb on the scales of justice — in ways that are unhelpful even for those you agree with. Biden’s comments erred in a direction that Obama came to avoid after some early controversy. The question now is whether that’s a sign of things to come as the racial-justice debate evolves — especially with future police killings of Black people — or whether Biden simply got out over his skis, as he often does.