Civil Liberties Get Short Shrift From Trump

The president’s recent comments on guns and due process are a reminder that he has long been dismissive of many constitutional norms.

AP Photo/John Locher
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
March 7, 2018, 8 p.m.

Donald Trump’s declaration last week that due process should come only after guns are seized from people suspected of mental illness was a very public reminder that this is a president who rarely gives a high priority to civil liberties.

From his days as an outspoken developer in New York to his campaign for president and now as president, Trump has always chafed at the slow pace of courts and the delays caused by adhering to constitutional norms. As he tweeted in 2011 during the debate over mass surveillance of private communications, “Your civil liberties mean nothing if you’re dead. That’s why the single most important function of the federal government is defense.”

The president’s most vigorous defense of due process came when two of his aides were accused of domestic abuse and he demanded they be given the benefit of the doubt until evidence was presented.

Here are 10 of the most notable times Trump has wanted to circumvent the courts and civil liberties in dealing with challenges:

Seize guns, then worry about due process:

In a televised discussion of guns last Wednesday, the president cut off Vice President Mike Pence when Pence stressed the importance of “due process, so that no one’s rights are trampled.” Trump responded, “Take the firearms first and then go to court,” adding, “It takes so long to go to court, to get the due-process procedures. I like taking the guns early.”

Execute the Central Park Five:

In 1989, developer Trump was furious when five teenagers from Harlem—four black and one Latino—were accused of raping and assaulting a white woman in Central Park. He bought full-page ads in four New York City newspapers to demand their execution. To this day, Trump sticks to that view, even though their convictions were vacated when DNA evidence cleared them. He continues to point to their confessions, which came after lengthy interrogations.

Police should rough up suspects:

Speaking before police in Long Island last July, the president urged police to be “rough” with suspects. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon … please don’t be too nice,” he said. Referring to officers shielding suspects’ heads as they enter cars, he said, “You can take the hand away, OK?” The White House later contended he was “joking.”

Execute drug dealers:

An Axios report cited five sources this week stating that the president frequently in private conversation demands the execution of drug dealers. Last Thursday, during a discussion on the opioid crisis, Trump praised “some countries” that impose “the ultimate penalty” on those dealers. “And, by the way,” he added, “they have much less of a drug problem than we do.”

Ban Muslim immigrants and set up a Muslim database:

He has not been able to deliver on his campaign promise of establishing a Muslim database in the United States. But he has tried to ban immigrants from several Muslim countries from entering the country. The ban, condemned by civil liberties activists, faces continued court scrutiny; the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on April 25.

Calls for execution of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl:

During the campaign, Trump led chants of “lock her up” on Hillary Clinton. He went beyond that in the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, calling him a “dirty rotten traitor” who should have been executed for deserting his post in Afghanistan. He continued those calls as commander in chief and last year said Bergdahl’s court-martial sentence was a “complete and total disgrace.”

Go-ahead for torture:

Trump frequently has championed the use of torture and praised leaders like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte who torture suspects. As president, he has deferred to aides on the question but has left no doubt he still thinks it is an effective tool. He was criticized for that last June by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who said Trump’s “persistent flirtation” with torture was dangerous.

Detain citizens out of fear of Ebola:

One of the first signs that Trump would launch a presidential campaign was his loud condemnation of President Obama’s approach to the Ebola crisis in 2014-2015. Trump demanded quarantines of American citizens against their will and against the advice of doctors—and in possible violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. He also demanded a ban on flights from West Africa and a policy to keep American doctors and medical workers from returning home.

Pass laws making it tougher to criticize public officials:

As a candidate, Trump promised to “open up our libel laws.” As president, he tried to block the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and has called on Congress to crack down on the free press. “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace. … So we’re going to take a strong look at that,” he said.

Punish NFL players for protests:

Trump has tweeted at least 24 times and spoken out publicly several times to condemn football players protesting police discrimination by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. His tweet on Oct. 10 raised the prospect of government action to punish those players: “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” That threat “put the First Amendment into play,” according to David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Honorable mention:

Trump has supported mass surveillance of private communications, pushed measures making it easier to discriminate against gays, encouraged supporters at rallies to get rough with protesters, praised China for its crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, and suggested censoring some communications on the internet, saying at a 2015 rally that those who raise “freedom of speech” concerns about internet discourse are “foolish people.”

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