The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The death of Ashli Babbitt offers the purest distillation of Donald Trump’s view of justice

Former president Donald Trump points at an airplane during a news conference Wednesday at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The night of May 29, 2020, was a frightening one for President Donald Trump. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer had spawned massive protests throughout the country, including on the streets of Washington. Concerned about the unrest, the president’s protective detail moved him into a bunker inside the White House, a precautionary measure that Trump would later claim involved nothing more than a tour. (This was not true.)

Always seeking to project strength, Trump the next morning presented the situation as though he was a conquering general.

“Great job last night at the White House by the [Secret Service],” he wrote on Twitter. “ … I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe.” He praised agents for letting the protesters “scream & rant,” noting that if any “got too frisky or out of line, [agents] would quickly come down on them, hard — didn’t know what hit them.”

“[N]obody came close to breaching the fence” outside the White House, Trump added. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”

Seven months later, a very different crowd of protesters threatened the seat of the legislative branch of government. Pro-Trump rioters not only breached the fence outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, but also made their way inside the building through smashed windows and forced-open doors. Scores of them used improvised weapons and fists to batter and repel law enforcement officers. At times, the crowd chanted explicitly for violence against lawmakers — Democratic leaders, Vice President Mike Pence. And, at times, parts of the mob got perilously close to those officials themselves.

One such group found its way to a doorway at the end of a hallway connected to the House chamber. That hallway was an escape route for legislators in the room, some of whom spied the rioters through the glass windows that formed part of the imperfect barrier keeping them safe. When those windows were briefly left unguarded, the rioters smashed them, providing an opportunity for one, a woman named Ashli Babbitt, to try to enter the hallway.

A law enforcement officer defending the space fired a shot, striking Babbitt. She later died.

One of the grimly fascinating aspects of the Jan. 6 riot is how it exposed the boundaries of right-wing support for police. Those officers tasked with defending the building were attacked; an effort to recognize their service was later opposed by some of the House’s furthest-right members. The man who shot Babbitt has become a target of fury as Babbitt has increasingly been cast as something of a martyr for the day’s cause. Because that cause was Trumpism, Trump himself has spoken of Babbitt more and more often.

At a rally in Florida over the weekend, he demanded to make public the name of the person who had fired the bullet.

“People know the name. People know where he came from,” he said. “Now if that were on the other side” — meaning, not on Trump’s side — “the person who did the shooting would be strung up and hung.”

He reiterated the theme at a news conference on Wednesday.

“The person that shot Ashli Babbitt — boom, right through the head,” Trump said. “Just, boom. … They’ve already written it off. They said that case is closed. If that were the opposite, that case would be going on for years and years, and it would not be pretty.”

(Babbitt was not shot in the head. She was shot in the neck.)

Importantly, Trump also said that there was “no reason” for Babbitt’s having been shot. When protesters were outside the White House in May 2020, crossing the fence would have meant being mauled by dogs or otherwise being “really badly hurt, at least.” But a member of a huge, violent mob surging into a secure area of the Capitol that tried to press forward toward evacuating legislators? No reason for law enforcement to use deadly force.

This, at its heart, is Trump’s view of justice. Those on his side are exempt from accountability for their actions. Those on the other side, however, most be dealt with harshly — more harshly than the law allows.

His chest-thumping bravado about protesters at the White House on May 30 of last year came a bit over 24 hours after one of his most notorious responses to the unrest at that moment. Early in the morning of May 29, he had excoriated violence that had spiraled out of the Minneapolis protests, insisting that he would deploy federal troops if needed.

“Any difficulty and we will assume control,” he tweeted, “but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

He and his team tried to reframe that as somehow being a declaration that looting would lead to third-party gun violence, but taking that spin at face value took a level of credulity possessed by few people above the age of 3. Last month, details from Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender’s new book were published by CNN. They describe the conversations Trump and his team were having about the protests, with Trump on more than one occasion offering a terse recommendation: “Just shoot them.” Happily, cooler heads prevailed.

Looking back, we see this dichotomy in justice over and over and over. A self-professed member of antifa kills a Trump supporter in Portland, Ore., and Trump praises U.S. marshals for killing him while trying to execute an arrest.

“That’s the way it has to be,” Trump said then. “There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”

Yet when Kyle Rittenhouse was charged in the shooting deaths of two people near a protest over police violence in Kenosha, Wis., Trump came to his defense.

“I guess it looks like he fell and then they very violently attacked him,” Trump said of Rittenhouse, who was at the scene in support of police. “And it was something that we’re looking at right now, and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been — probably would have been killed, but it’s under investigation.”

Rittenhouse, it was eventually revealed, was a Trump supporter and had attended a Trump rally. But even if Trump didn’t know this specifically, he knew whose side Rittenhouse was on at least in the abstract. And, as a result, he gave Rittenhouse the same benefit of innocence that he gave Babbitt.

This is precisely what the American legal system is supposed to uproot, this idea that culpability for a crime should be colored by political belief or political allegiance. That the justice system often nonetheless manifests prejudices, including regarding race, is at the center of the Black Lives Matter protests. But it is not often that political allegiance is so explicitly identified as the predicate for how justice should be applied.

Again, though, this is the essence of Trump’s view. His pardons as president were lopsidedly weighted toward his cronies and political allies. A slew of supporters who faced past or future criminal charges were cleared with a press of Trump’s send button. Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Stephen K. Bannon, Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza, Bernard Kerik. All targeted unfairly by shadowy law enforcement officials who Trump saw as oppressive. All cleared because Trump had the ability to tilt the scales of justice as he saw fit.

Trump’s embrace of Babbitt as the only wronged party at the moment of her death fits squarely with this pattern. But, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait points out, it’s far more fraught. Trump is not just sloppily lathering his allies with the grace of his exoneration. He’s rationalizing and reframing a violent effort to derail the transfer of power.

In that sense, it is perhaps the most pure distillation of his approach to justice. What could be more obviously a sign of moral innocence in Trump’s view than a misguided effort to defend his own power and position? Ashli Babbitt’s death was unfair in Trump’s eyes not because of the circumstances in that hallway but because she was in the Capitol at all — where she should have been, a soldier in his futile and bizarre war against reality.

As the riot was underway, Trump spoke on the phone with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). According to what McCarthy told other legislators in that moment, Trump excoriated McCarthy for not fighting harder in his defense.

“Well, Kevin,” Trump reportedly told McCarthy, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

They were on his side. And, therefore, they were in the right, no matter what.