If you run a police department with a record of abuse or racial discrimination, President Trump has a message for you: Relax. On Monday, Trump’s Justice Department asked a court to suspend a plan to reform Baltimore’s police department, which was negotiated by the Obama Justice Department in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015. The request was rejected on Wednesday but similar agreements in more than a dozen other cities could be targeted. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared in a memo challenging these agreements. “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform.”
If, on the other hand, you’re a federal law enforcement or intelligence officer investigating possible Russia-related misconduct by Trump’s associates, the president has a very different message: Back off. Don’t go after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, or any of the other Trump advisers implicated in the Russia scandal. If you do, Trump will attack your work and impugn your agency. He’ll do what criminal defense lawyers do in high-profile cases: Put the police on trial.
Trump ran for president as “the law-and-order candidate.” He said police got a bum rap for the errors or misconduct of a few rogue officers. “An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” Trump warned in his speech at the Republican National Convention.
As president, Trump has continued to defend police departments against charges of bias or misconduct. Two months ago, in a speech to police chiefs, he railed against “those who demonize law enforcement or who use the actions of a few to discredit the service of many.” Trump’s position statement on law enforcement pledges: “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.” Hence the Justice Department’s review of federally negotiated reform plans. In Trump’s view, it’s time to stop policing the police.
Unless, that is, the police in question are federal investigators looking into connections between Trump’s friends and Russian agents. In that case, Trump is for cracking down on the cops.
On Dec. 9, 2016, the Washington Post disclosed that the U.S. intelligence community, in a classified briefing to senators, had concluded that Russia interfered in the election “to help Trump get elected.” Was Trump sobered by this assessment? Not a bit. He dismissed it and attacked the intelligence agencies that had authored it. He defended Vladimir Putin’s denials, said the agencies were being “unfair” to Russia, and insisted that the case couldn’t be proved.” He ridiculed “the ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking.’ ” He went after the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency by name. He said the agencies had a record of bogus claims. He accused them of interfering in politics and cynically leaking false charges. He compared them to Nazis.
On March 4, Trump escalated his assault, accusing the Obama administration of tapping his phones. Even after Flynn was exposed as a foreign agent for Turkey and a liar about his contacts with Russia, Trump dismissed the investigation of him as a “witch hunt.” The real crime, Trump argued, wasn’t “the phony Russia story” but “the Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL.” On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer agreed that the monitoring of Trump’s aides was the real outrage: “There is a civil liberties component to this that should be very troubling.”
Why does Trump fret about civil liberties in the Russia investigation but not in city police departments? Because some people’s civil liberties matter, and some people’s don’t. During the campaign, Trump expressed particular interest in unlawful behavior by minorities. He cited bogus statistics about black-on-white crime and falsely claimed that “illegal immigrants” were driving U.S. crime numbers “through the roof.” On Monday, he promoted his plan for an office of “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement” to focus on crimes by any immigrant, legal or illegal.
The people Trump defends against the FBI and other law enforcement investigators—Flynn, Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page—aren’t black, Latino, or Muslim. They aren’t immigrants. They’re good, upstanding white folks who do good, upstanding things like secretly take millions of dollars to advance the interests of Russian or Turkish autocrats in the United States. “That’s Mr. Manafort,” Trump huffed at a White House press conference in February. “A respected man. He’s a respected man.” And what about Flynn, who had just resigned after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia? “Mike Flynn is a fine person.” The real criminals, said Trump, were the investigators who had told reporters about Flynn’s deceit.
Racial and religious double standards are only part of the story. The other part is that Trump doesn’t really respect the law. He loves police only when they love him. “The military and law enforcement. … They stood up for us in this last election,” Trump told supporters at a Feb. 18 rally in Melbourne, Florida. Last week, when leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police visited the White House, Trump thanked them “for your support during the election.” He promised them: “We will always support … the incredible men and women of law enforcement. I will always have your back 100 percent, like you’ve always had mine, and you showed that on Nov. 8.”
So let’s cut the bull about law and order. The only law enforcement Trump respects is the kind that goes after people he doesn’t like. Trump’s favorite law enforcers are men like Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who defied a court order to stop racially discriminatory immigration patrols, and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who tweeted a racial slur at a fellow black man and called the Women’s March on Washington a “freak show.” When the law comes for Trump or his friends, he puts the cops on trial. If the FBI’s investigation leads to him, don’t cut him any more slack than Jeff Sessions would give to some kid in Baltimore. Lock him up.