Politics

The Usefulness of Daniel Cameron

Why the Black attorney general who announced no charges in the killing of Breonna Taylor is a Republican star.

Daniel Cameron speaking at a podium
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron at a press conference in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Wednesday. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

A month ago, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron walked across a red carpet in D.C. and into the national spotlight. “Good evening,” Cameron said to the Republican National Convention audience, beaming in a sharp blue suit. “My name is Daniel Cameron. I’m 34 years old, and the first African American attorney general in Kentucky history.”

Back home in Kentucky, Cameron was facing pressure to charge three Louisville police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. But onstage at the RNC, Cameron was triumphant, singing the praises of President Donald Trump and helping the GOP in its effort to portray itself as inclusive and diverse. “Republicans will never turn a blind eye to unjust acts,” Cameron said, in a brief nod to the turmoil in his home state.

Those words rang especially hollow Wednesday afternoon, when Cameron announced that a Kentucky grand jury indicted one officer on charges of endangering Taylor’s neighbors with reckless gunfire, but that no one would be charged for killing Taylor. In a 52-minute news conference, Cameron’s words, meant to justify the unsatisfying charges, actually did more to explain his meteoric rise through the ranks of Republican politics.

“There will be celebrities, influencers, and activists who, having never lived in Kentucky, would try to tell us how to feel, suggesting they understand the facts of this case and that they know our community and the commonwealth better than we do. But they don’t,” he said, belittling those who dared suggest killing a woman in her own apartment merited a stronger legal response.* “Do we really want the truth, or do we want a truth that fits our narrative?” he asked, implying that those who believe police officers should have been charged for killing an unarmed woman were somehow manipulating the facts.

Cameron returned again and again to his interpretation of the facts Wednesday, echoing the officers’ claims that they identified themselves when they approached Taylor’s apartment shortly after midnight on March 13. That police account has been confirmed by only one witness, while Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker and many other neighbors have said they heard no such thing. Cameron apparently didn’t find it suspicious there was no body camera footage of the raid, even though reporting suggests that at least one of the officers was wearing a body camera. Cameron could understand the fear officers said they felt when they fired their weapons multiple times into the apartment after Walker fired his gun. But the attorney general said little about the fear Walker must have felt, as a man who was woken in the middle of the night by armed intruders at his front door. To Cameron, it was all an unavoidable tragedy. “The truth is now before us,” he said, with conviction, even though it wasn’t.

In many ways, Cameron is the fulfillment of Trump and the GOP’s vision of American justice. To them, the pretense of fairness is more important than its presence. To them, the real outrage of Taylor’s killing is the public dissent. To them, Black and brown people in an urban area like Louisville have no legitimate claim to justice. “The criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief,” Cameron said, as if Taylor’s death was just a sad thing that happened. On the surface, he was speaking to reporters, activists, and to Black people dismayed by the lack of charges. But it was just as easy to hear his words as an attempt to please the white Republicans who put him in power—to deliver what they expected. As a local political journalist told the New York Times of Cameron’s standing with those Republicans and the national party, “This was a big test and he has largely passed it.”

As recently as a year ago, Cameron was defending himself against accusations that he wasn’t experienced enough to run for attorney general in Kentucky. A Louisville judge rejected that claim, paving the way for Cameron to remain on the ballot and win his election last November. But what Cameron lacked in experience he made up for in fealty to Republicans, calling, for example, for a halt on abortions due to the pandemic while at the same time taking legal action to try to stop coronavirus orders from the state’s Democratic governor.

Cameron has proudly talked about growing up with GOP-supporting parents, a rarity among Black voters. He said his mother often joked that the last Democratic presidential candidate she voted for was Jimmy Carter in 1976. “She will tell you she hasn’t made a mistake since.” He went on to earn his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Louisville, then served as a clerk for a conservative U.S. District Court judge. But it was Cameron’s next job that elevated his profile: working as general counsel in Mitch McConnell’s Senate office, and helping in the effort to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

McConnell returned the favor last year by supporting Cameron’s bid for attorney general, rallying financial support to help him win the GOP primary. Trump was on board too. After Cameron won his election, Trump shouted him out on Twitter: “Great going Daniel, proud of you!”

And just two weeks ago, even before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Cameron’s name appeared on Trump’s short list of potential nominees to the court. Though Trump has now said he will nominate a woman and most reports have him primed to replace Ginsburg with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, it is a testament to Cameron’s usefulness to the Republican Party that he even made it that far.

In fact, Cameron is nothing if not useful. At Cameron’s swearing-in ceremony in January, McConnell talked about being “constantly irritated … by the suggestion that since President Obama never did well here, that Kentucky was a bunch of racists. It irritated the living hell out of me for eight years.” Now, though, he could point to Cameron as a rebuttal. Would a racist state really elect this guy?

And what good fortune for Republicans who would rather talk about “chaos in the streets” than police brutality against Black people to have a Black man deliver news like Wednesday’s—that a young Black woman was killed in her home and no one will suffer any consequences.

“I understand that as a Black man, how painful this is,” Cameron said on Wednesday—a pretty good trick for a guy who talked about “anarchists mindlessly tear[ing] up American cities while attacking police and innocent bystanders” at the RNC. It’s no wonder that Trump took notice of Cameron early, introducing him at a rally of Kentucky Republicans by saying, “A star is born.”

It’s impossible to know if Cameron is a true believer like Ben Carson or an opportunist like Omarosa Manigault Newman or someone in the middle like Ja’Ron Smith. His background implies the former. But I suspect that doesn’t matter much in a party whose leader is known for humiliating those no longer deemed useful (Manigault Newman, for example, was reportedly “physically dragged and escorted off campus” on her final day) and didn’t bother to attend his “great friend” and Black ally’s funeral, and whose convention featured Black people tricked into appearing. In the end, Cameron should know he is as expendable to Trump, McConnell, and the white Republicans who have embraced him as Breonna Taylor apparently was to him.

Correction, Sept. 28, 2020: This article originally misstated that Breonna Taylor was killed in her bed. She died in the hallway of her apartment.