This weekend, as violence and protests over the death of George Floyd shook the country, President Donald Trump called for “law and order.” “We support the overwhelming majority of police officers who are … devoted public servants,” said Trump. “It is essential that we protect the crown jewel of American democracy: the rule of law and our independent system of justice.”
That’s a standard Republican message, and there’s a lot of truth to it. But Trump doesn’t believe in the rule of law. His record shows an uglier pattern: He supports cops when they target people of color. He opposes cops when they target him and his friends.
In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested for a horrific rape in New York. Trump responded with a full-page newspaper ad that demanded, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” Trump insisted that the teens were guilty, even after they were exonerated. In 2012, he endorsed police surveillance of American Muslims. In 2014, when President Barack Obama spoke about the killing of Eric Garner, Trump tweeted, “Obama now wants to deny due process to the police.” In 2015, when violence erupted over the death of Freddie Gray, Trump jeered: “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!”
As president, Trump stayed on this theme. His inaugural address depicted an “American carnage” of “crime and gangs and drugs.” He praised police, especially when they battled MS-13, a Latino gang. He told officers not to worry about protecting suspects from injury during arrests. All along, he assumed that law enforcement was on his side. He bragged that “the cops,” like “the plumbers” and “the truck drivers,” were “the people that like me best.”
But not every cop was smitten by Trump. In 2017, then–FBI Director James Comey refused to clear the president and his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in the Russia investigation. So Trump fired Comey. In January 2019, Trump discovered that the bureau had launched an inquiry into the firing. “Wow, just learned in the Failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI … opened up an investigation on me,” the president tweeted. Trump needed to explain why he, the putative friend of cops, had fired the head of the FBI. So he labeled Comey a “bad cop,” a “crooked cop,” and a “dirty cop.”
In March 2019, special counsel Robert Mueller, another former FBI director, filed a report documenting Trump’s misconduct in the Russia investigation. Trump responded by calling every member of the investigative team a “dirty cop.” He applied that slur to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, the FBI “leadership,” “people in the Justice Department,” and “Mueller and the gang.” Trump claimed that they had “forged documents,” had used “an illegal document,” and had tampered with evidence. He said they had been caught “in the act” and had been exposed as “dirty cops” by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
None of this was true. But Trump’s smear campaign served three objectives. First, it helped him turn the investigation of himself into an investigation of the cops. “It was an illegal investigation,” said Trump. “We never did anything wrong. The people that did something wrong were the other side—the dirty cops.” On Twitter, he demanded, “INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS!” He suggested that the “Dirty (Filthy) Cops” should be put “in jail for treason.”
Second, the anti-cop narrative cast Trump as the hero. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he called Comey “one of the dirtiest cops our Nation has ever seen.” Purging Comey and Comey’s associates—essentially, anyone who had investigated Trump—was “one of my greatest achievements,” said Trump, “because we have no place in our country for people like that.”
Third, the anti-cop narrative laid a foundation for reversing the convictions of Trump’s henchmen. “If Comey & the top people in the FBI were dirty cops,” Trump tweeted, “wouldn’t all of these phony cases have to be overturned or dismissed?” When Trump was asked about pardoning Roger Stone—another adviser convicted in the Russia inquiry—he said Stone and Flynn were victims of a “hoax” investigation run by “dirty cops.”
Trump’s attacks on law enforcement culminated in a bizarre commencement address to reformed ex-convicts in February. He was supposed to talk about repentance and rehabilitation. Instead, he accused “dirty cops” of railroading Stone and Flynn. Stone had been convicted of witness tampering. “But the man that he was tampering didn’t seem to have much of a problem with it,” Trump complained to the ex-convicts. “And it’s not like the tampering that I see on television when you watch a movie.”
Still, Trump was happy to praise cops who revered him and shared his resentments. In October 2019, the police union in Minneapolis—where Floyd would die at the hands of four officers—peddled “Cops for Trump” T-shirts on its website. Trump promoted the T-shirts and thanked the police for supporting him and “fighting the Radical Left Mayor.” On Oct. 10, at a nearly all-white rally in Minneapolis, he declared, “Cops love Trump. Trump loves cops.” More than a dozen white officers, including the head of the police union, paraded onstage to shake the president’s hand. Then Trump launched into his next riff: “For many years, leaders in Washington brought large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia.” The crowd booed.
The past month should dispel any doubts about the racial pattern in Trump’s thinking. On April 30, he accused “dirty, filthy cops” of victimizing Flynn. On May 8, he accused the FBI of tampering with Flynn’s interview records. On May 23, he castigated former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to rein in the “dirty cops.” On May 26, he called them “dishonest slime bags.” Then Floyd’s death engulfed the country, and Trump switched sides. He denounced the “THUGS” rioting over Floyd’s death, as he had previously denounced, with an explicitly racial jab at Obama, the protesters after Gray’s death. He warned, in the words of an infamous racist police chief, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He threatened protesters and rioters with “vicious dogs,” “ominous weapons,” and “the unlimited power of our Military.” At a White House meeting with business executives on Friday, Trump insisted that on the whole, “Our police have been very outstanding.”
There’s no mystery left about the president’s views on cops. He loves them when they’re targeting minorities. But when they investigate him or his friends, he calls them dirty. He’s not interested in order, justice, or the rule of law. He’s not even interested, as a matter of principle, in defending the police. He’s interested in corrupting them.
For more Slate coverage of George Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests, listen to What Next.