In heading to Kenosha, Wis. to address unrest there, Donald Trump has claimed the mantle of “law and order” for his presidency. In fact, he has shown only disdain for both. He has failed to keep people safe — the central reason we care about law and order and the most basic and important duty of a president. As former federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials with 100 years of collective experience, we offer some thoughts about what it means to truly lead on public safety issues.
First, Trump is not “pro-law enforcement.” He has spent much of the past three and a half years smearing law enforcement when he dislikes the subject of their investigations or their conclusions. Trump repeatedly called a legitimate investigation into Russia’s attacks on our election a “rigged witch hunt;” compared FBI agents to “stormtroopers” when carrying out a court-authorized search warrant; mischaracterized FBI work with loaded words like “infiltrating” or “spying”; and suggested that “flipping” cooperators (a practice upon which many significant criminal cases are built) should be illegal. He heralded the intelligence community when it successfully targeted terrorists overseas, but vilified the intelligence community when it concluded Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Support of law enforcement is not supposed to be transactional, but that is Donald Trump’s worldview.Even when professing to support law enforcement, Trump and his Attorney General William Barr have done so in ways that are designed to inflame tensions between law enforcement and the people they serve. Trump encouraged police not to be “too nice” in handling suspects. Barr threatened communities that don’t show law enforcement “more respect” with the loss of police protective services. Actions by law enforcement should be scrutinized critically to be sure, and officers held accountable when they violate their duty of trust. But the unfair and categorical attacks by the president can and will impede the progress of everyday cases that we need to protect public safety from murderers, sexual predators, human traffickers and terrorists. In other words, the antithesis of law and order.
Second, the rule of law means that we should strive for the ideal that race, national origin, sex, wealth, political party and allegiance to the those in power should make no difference as to who is investigated or prosecuted or how a person is treated by law enforcement. But in the Trump administration, this ideal has been violated repeatedly. Trump associates Roger Stone and Michael Flynn received special treatment that others charged with similar crimes have not. Although convicted by a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, Stone will never serve a day of his 40-month sentence for witness tampering, obstruction of justice and perjury — crimes that a sentencing judge found he committed to cover up for the president. That’s because Trump commuted his sentence before it began. Similarly, Michael Flynn, after admitting his guilt under oath twice, saw the Department of Justice move to dismiss his case, using a legal theory that the administration has rejected when asserted by defendants who are not allied with Trump.
Third, if a president truly supports “law and order,” then he must comply with the law himself. He must lead by example. Again, Trump’s record suggests an unparalleled disregard for the law. We believe he has obstructed investigators, condoned repeated violations of the Hatch Act, retaliated against witnesses like Alexander Vindman and Michael Cohen, pardoned allies, and refused to comply with subpoenas from state prosecutors and regulators, filing frivolous motions in court to run out the clock on valid criminal grand jury subpoenas. The Supreme Court has rejected his view that he is not subject to the laws that citizens comply with every day. The most damaging proof Trump is not a “law and order” president is the way he fans the flames of division and hatred which provokes unrest and makes us all less safe. In a call with our nation’s governors following the killing of George Floyd, Trump instructed them to “dominate the streets,” hardly a recipe for de-escalating tensions and restoring order. His Department of Homeland Security used agents in military garb in Portland, who responded to protesters with rubber bullets and teargas. These tactics exacerbated tensions, attracting more protesters, such as the “wall of Moms,” ultimately requiring federal withdrawal. In the wake of other police killings, the president has offered no solutions to deal with the issue of racial injustice. Indeed, by blurring together those who peacefully protest and those who engage in violent and criminal activity, he undermines efforts to deal with the problem of unequal application of the law to people of color. This approach stands in stark contrast to his handling of protests in Charlottesville, when he praised white supremacists by suggesting that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Most recently, he has defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with killing two people in Kenosha, Wis., in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Vigilantism is the opposite of law and order. A president should speak against injustice, respect and obey the law, urge unity and seek to heal divisions rather than widen them for his own political gain. A president who was truly the law and order president Trump has proclaimed himself to be would be doing precisely that.
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