According to the American rule of law, even the most detestable defendant deserves a fair trial, is presumed innocent until proven guilty with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and only then does a judge or jury determine a sentence that’s commensurate with the guilt. But apparently we have a lawless president who thinks otherwise.
Leave it to Trump to gum up the federal court machinery in the case of alleged rent-a-truck terrorist Sayfullo Saipov. He clearly wants Saipov punished to the max – heck, if Saipov is found guilty, we all want that – but once again, Trump’s toxic mix of authoritarianism and ignorance has intruded on our democratic proceedings. Seriously, there are times when this guy can’t seem to find his own butt even with a map of the anatomy.
Yesterday he tweeted that the case “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” He apparently assumed that his capital letters and exclamation mark would somehow strengthen his point, but, for me anyway, it merely conjured the tyrannical Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland,” who sought to short-circuit a trial by declaring, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”
And by trying to throw his weight around, he potentially made life more difficult for the federal prosecutors whom he surely supports. If Saipov goes to trial in federal court, defense lawyers could cite that tweet (plus others yesterday, plus a verbal remark that I’ll reference shortly) and claim that the jury pool has been polluted. The Justice Department is supposed to be the final arbiter on whether to seek the death penalty, and if it were to recommend that punishment for Saipov, defense lawyers could cite the tweet and claim that the DOJ was improperly swayed by Trump. At minimum, those defense moves could seriously slow the case.
Trump should’ve simply shut up. But, of course, he doesn’t know how. And late yesterday, The Wall Street Journal assessed the potential damage:
“Death penalty experts said they couldn’t recall a president dictating punishment of a terrorist defendant days after an attack, as investigators were still collecting evidence…’It puts a cloud over the system,’ George Kendall, a New York-based lawyer at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, who specializes in death penalty litigation, said of Mr. Trump’s comments. ‘He’s not supposed to put his thumb on the system of justice. And every president I know observed that.”
The difference is, none of the previous presidents aspired to serve as Putin’s autocratic Mini-Me. And none of the previous presidents ever insulted America by openly assailing the American judicial system – as Trump did yesterday during a Cabinet meeting – declaring that the system isn’t tough enough on terrorists. In Trump’s words, “What we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock.”
By the way, when propaganda minister Sarah Huckabee Sanders was later asked why Trump had called our courts a joke and a laughingstock, Sanders promptly replied: “He never said that.” Despite the fact that his off-the-cuff broadside was captured on video.
His comment also reflected the fact that he’s a tad light on the knowledge front. According to the Justice Department’s own stats, 627 federal convictions were notched in terrorism or terrorism-related cases between 9/11 and the end of 2015. The conviction rate was roughly 87 percent. Just last month, for instance, a federal court in Manhattan sentenced a convicted terrorist to life in prison for planting bombs in New York and New Jersey 13 months ago. And in all the cases that involved accused or self-identified followers of ISIS, the conviction rate has been 100 percent.
The courts have done their job no matter who was president. The George W. Bush team at the Justice Department, in one of its own budget documents, reported a 90 percent conviction and sentencing rate during those eight years – with no sideline mockery from Bush. Letting the process play out, minus presidential interference, is the American way.
As James Cullen, a retired brigadier general and former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeal, said in 2010, while defending the need to inform accused terrorists of their rights, “Attacks on the rule of law constitute a greater danger to all Americans than any threat posed by terrorists…We should challenge anyone who suggests we ignore what makes us stronger.”
It makes us stronger to challenge an alleged leader who’s clueless about the rule of law. Besides passing sentence on Saipov, he’s also busy these days demanding that the FBI and Justice Department pursue Hillary Clinton (he just can’t quit her) – and for some reason he’s aghast that he can’t flex muscle to make it happen. Putin can politicize law enforcement to target and jail his political opponents, so why can’t Trump?
In a radio interview yesterday, Trump said: “The saddest thing is that because I’m president of the United States I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to do the kinds of things that I would love to be doing and I am very frustrated about it.”
Aw, so sad. Where’s my violin?