Former President Donald Trump has a problem with crime. Not his own legal troubles, but his position on how to deal with it.
In a recent interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, Trump advocated for imposing the death penalty on convicted drug dealers, saying it was the only way to stop the drug problem in the country.
“That’s the only way you’re going to stop it. If you want to get rid of it — now, I don’t know that this country is ready for it. I just don’t know. You know, every time I say it, I sort of like — it’s — it’s not easy to say the death penalty,” Trump said.
But Baier challenged Trump on how his death penalty proposal would apply to Alice Johnson, a woman whose sentence he commuted and whose story he featured in a Super Bowl ad in 2020.
Johnson was serving a life sentence without parole for a nonviolent drug offense when Trump granted her clemency in 2018, after being lobbied by reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. Trump later pardoned Johnson in 2020 and used her as an example of his criminal justice reform efforts.
“But she’d be killed under your plan,” Baier said to Trump.
“Huh?” Trump responded, appearing confused.
Trump then said he was focused on nonviolent crime, but did not explain how he would distinguish between different types of drug dealers or why he supported the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform law that he signed in 2018.
The First Step Act reduced mandatory minimum sentences, expanded credits for well-behaved prisoners looking for shorter sentences and aimed to reduce recidivism. It was viewed as such an asset for Trump at the time that his 2020 campaign paid millions of dollars to air a Super Bowl ad that year that highlighted Johnson’s story and featured the line: “Politicians talk about criminal justice reform. President Trump got it done.”
But the conversation around crime within the GOP has shifted since that ad aired. Strategists and party officials largely point to the protests against racial injustice and police brutality that swept the nation in summer 2020 after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, and the calls from some progressives to defund the police that sprung out of that movement.
With a Democrat in the White House, it has become easier for Republicans to blame the opposing party for high-profile violent incidents in New York City or increased crime rates in Washington. Instead of embracing criminal justice reform as an accomplishment, the GOP position toward crime has hardened, with politicians and presidential candidates calling for severe crackdowns on violent offenders and drug dealers.
That has made the First Step Act in particular a target for criticism from some candidates challenging Trump for the party’s 2024 nomination.
“Every candidate is looking for ways to attack Trump from the right, and crime is one of those openings,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential bid.
Trump’s inconsistency and confusion on crime may expose his vulnerability on an issue that is likely to be important for Republican primary voters, especially as he faces potential rivals who have more hawkish records on law enforcement and public safety.
Trump’s death penalty dilemma also raises questions about his sincerity and commitment to criminal justice reform, which he claimed to champion while in office. How can he reconcile his support for Alice Johnson with his call for killing drug dealers? How can he tout his First Step Act while advocating for harsher punishments? And how can he convince voters that he is the best candidate to restore law and order while facing multiple legal investigations himself?
-Trump’s vulnerability on crime may have been exposed in Fox interview, The Hill, 6/25/2023
-Trump calls for death penalty for drug dealers; Fox’s Baier notes it would apply to woman he championed, Yahoo News, 6/20/2023
-Trump’s position on the death penalty and other key takeaways from interview, ABC News, 6/22/2023
-Trump Explains How He Will Eliminate Crime Via Killing Spree, Wonkette, 6/21/2023