President Donald Trump’s response to the October 31 truck-driving attack in New York, though predictable, was ominous. His needless but purposeful fearmongering is just one of the ways he exercises his power and prominence in ways that echo authoritarian rulers.
Because Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan, turned to ISIS rather than the KKK before carrying out this horrific attack, his act of terrorism is being treated differently by Trump. Because he is Muslim rather than Christian, Trump spouts bile, hatred, and threats rather than downplaying the crime – or arguing that we should not discuss policy changes in response, as he did concerning the terrible Las Vegas shooting by a white man. And because Saipov is an immigrant rather than native-born, Trump is wielding the attack as a weapon of his own to use against immigration and, by extension, immigrants. He is doing all this to create a climate of fear that he can take advantage of.
Trump cited the murders in New York City as a reason to cancel the visa lottery program that Saipov had used to immigrate here. That program issues 50,000 visas every year, and it has been in effect for over 20 years. So Saipov is one of more than a million immigrants who entered through this particular program.
But this particular program isn’t the main point. The point is that Trump will use any and all opportunities to attack immigration – and immigrants – to try to make his case that immigration is dangerous. The point is to create fear. So Trump tweets inflammatory statements like, “We need quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock.” That creates a sense of danger.
Referring to Saipov, the president said he was open to the idea of taking “this animal” out of the criminal justice system altogether and sending him instead to Guantánamo and subjecting him to a military trial. The Guantánamo prison was set up after 9/11 and is intended for “the worst of the worst,” dangerous terrorists who (in theory) can’t be effectively tried in regular courts. But there is nothing about the truck attack to suggest a threat on that scale.
Trump also tweeted that the “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room,” adding that he “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”
After 9/11, President George W. Bush met with New York’s Democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and stood in solidarity with them. In contrast, Trump spent the day accusing Schumer of causing the murders, since he had supported the lottery program when it was created. (Schumer also tried to eliminate it as part of comprehensive immigration reform, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Trump.) Trump also tweeted the baseless charge that Democrats “don’t want to do what’s right for our country.”
The president of the United States responded to a terror attack by blaming his political opponents and essentially labeling the opposition party as a threat to the nation.
This is what authoritarian governments do.
Trump and the GOP’s obsession over the fake “Clinton-uranium” story is also a part of this ominous story. Demands for a criminal investigation of the losing presidential candidate are something you don’t see in a democracy. But Trump and his allies are creating a “fake news” world, so their supporters are whipped into a frenzy over completely fictitious outrages by “the other side.”
Because the courts stand as a bulwark against the dismantling of our democracy, Trump is attacking them, as well. Upon his arrest, Saipov entered our nation’s criminal justice system for prosecution under the laws of the United States — laws that include the Bill of Rights. Our Constitution intentionally created a judicial system in which independent judges would be institutionally protected from popular pressure to do things like denying criminal defendants their constitutional rights. This independence protects the rule of law, and it prompted Chief Justice William Rehnquist to call our federal court system “one of the crown jewels of our system of government today.”
And Donald Trump apparently feels threatened by that independence. As he has demonstrated on multiple occasions, he resents having a judiciary that can impose limits on his power.
So in response to the attack, Trump attacked our federal judicial system almost as much as he attacked Saipov. Many of his tweets designed to generate fear and division have the additional and extremely worrying effect of eroding confidence in the courts. “We need quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock.” “We have to get much tougher.”
His message is clear: not only are we in grave danger, but the core components of our democratic system must be cast aside if we are to be safe. If you want to steal the crown jewels, one way to do it is to convince people they’re worthless. That way, they won’t mind when you pocket them.
So Trump and his allies are sowing seeds of doubt in our justice system and in the rule of law—seeds designed to bloom into a toxic rejection of democracy.
The president’s call for executing Saipov may very well hurt the government’s effort to prosecute and punish him appropriately. As the New York Times reports:
Presidents are typically advised never to weigh in on pending criminal cases because such comments can be used by defense lawyers to argue that their clients cannot get a fair trial — especially when the head of the executive branch that will prosecute the charges advocates the ultimate punishment before a judge has heard a single shred of evidence at trial.
But Trump doesn’t care about this individual defendant. He has all of America in his sights. In fact, if the case against Saipov were to fall apart due to Trump’s statements, it would give him another chance to rail against our system of justice, where murder defendants are no less protected by the Constitution than anyone else.
This is a very dangerous moment for the United States.
Paul Gordon is the senior legislative counsel at People For the American Way.