Analysis

Donald Trump's Presumption of Guilt

Unlike his predecessors, the president shows no compunction about passing judgement on ongoing investigations and judicial matters.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl leaves the courtroom facility during a sentencing hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C. on Nov. 3, 2017.
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Dec. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s not often that the mention of Charles Manson evokes thoughts of the good old days in American governance, the days when presidents didn’t routinely put their thumbs on the scales of justice.

Back in 1970, when the murderous cult leader was on trial along with two of his followers, President Nixon made an offhand comment that Manson was “guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders.” The reaction was swift and harsh. One reporter wrote that the president’s “errant stupidity” might cause a mistrial and free Manson. His defense lawyers demanded a mistrial, one of them stating, “If we’re going to have the chief executive of this nation ... speculate on people’s guilt, we ought to abandon this court system.” Manson himself somehow managed to get a newspaper and held it up in court so the jury could see the headlines of Nixon’s comments. Before the day was out, the White House backed away from the comments and apologized. A mistrial was averted.

The lesson was not lost on the presidents who followed Nixon in office. President Obama stumbled in 2009 when he stated that police in Massachusetts had “acted stupidly” in arresting an African-American professor at his own home. Like Nixon, he quickly “clarified” and walked away from any interference in the judicial system. Like every other modern president, that was the policy.

Until President Trump. In recent days, the current president has retweeted a meme showing his political enemies—and sitting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—behind bars. Questioned on why he thought Rosenstein should be jailed, he told the New York Post, “because he should have never picked a special counsel.” Also this week, he has demanded a judge give a stiff prison sentence to his former longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Both are on a long list of persons that Trump has accused of crimes ranging from using drugs to lying to treason. They include favorite targets like Hillary Clinton, and a wide variety of others, including President Obama (“HE BROKE THE LAW AND SHOULD BE TRIED”), singer Snoop Dogg (“Jail time!”), comic Bill Cosby (“probably guilty”), South African athlete Oscar Pistorius (“No one has been more guilty since O.J.!”), baseball player Ryan Braun (“guilty as hell”), Clinton aide Huma Abedin (“Jail!”), Chelsea Manning (“Ungrateful TRAITOR), former Obama aide Steve Rattner (“You should have gone to prison”), and Jodi Arias, who was charged with killing her boyfriend in Arizona (“as guilty as it gets”).

Here are 10 of his top targets:

The Central Park Five

This case has dogged Trump for three decades. In 1989, he spent $85,000 to place full-page ads in New York newspapers to demand the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. “Muggers and murderers,” he wrote, “should be forced to suffer ...” Even after the convictions were overturned in 2002 based on another confession and DNA evidence, Trump has refused to budge, still insisting the five were guilty.

Hillary Clinton

The target of the original “Lock her up” chant at his rallies, she remains his most reliable target. He has called her “guilty as hell,” “crooked,” “sooooo guilty,” and “disgraceful.” He demanded that the Justice Department “DO SOMETHING” about her, adding “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary.”

Bowe Bergdahl

No case has better demonstrated the perils of political interference in justice than that of Bergdahl, the Army private who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban before Obama secured his release in a swap for five prisoners. In the campaign, Trump labeled him “a no-good traitor,” and called for him to be thrown out of an airplane without a parachute. At Bergdahl’s court martial, the judge agreed with defense attorneys that Trump’s comments were problematic. The situation was made worse when Trump, in the Rose Garden, reminded everyone of his earlier views. After the judge cited Trump’s words in giving him a light sentence with no jail time, the president erupted on Twitter, calling the sentence “a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.”

Michael Cohen

When his longtime lawyer pleaded guilty to lying to Congress this week, Trump was angry at calls for a light sentence. He tweeted that Cohen should not get off “Scott Free.” He added, “He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”

James Comey

Trump called the former FBI director an “untruthful slime ball” and “crooked.” He said he “broke the law” and leaked classified information and urged his prosecution.

The FBI

Trump has called for the prosecution of almost every FBI official in any way involved in the investigation of Clinton’s e-mails or the scrutiny of his campaign in 2016. Repeatedly, he urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute. “Come on Jeff, you can do it.” He contended the FBI had an informant in his campaign. “If so,” he tweeted, “this is bigger than Watergate!”

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Trump contends that Lynch took “totally illegal” actions in 2016 to protect Clinton and protect her from full prosecution. He applauded when his allies in Congress called for a full FBI investigation of Lynch.

“Anonymous”

When an unnamed member of his administration wrote a scathing New York Times article about his assault on democratic institutions under the byline of “anonymous,” Trump tried to use the Justice Department to get vengeance. He demanded a full investigation and accused the writer of treason.

The New York City terrorist

When a Uzbek immigrant was arrested in November 2017 for allegedly driving a rented truck into people on a New York City bike path, killing eight and injuring many others, the president did not wait for the legal process to play out. He quickly declared him guilty and demanded the death penalty.

Political foes

Repeatedly, Trump demanded that Sessions spend more time investigating Democrats and members of the Justice Department and FBI who were investigating him. “Look into all of the corruption on the ‘other side’,” he tweeted in August. Another time, he tweeted, “So where is the investigation A.G.” At his rallies, he has also encouraged the crowds when they broke into “lock her/him up” chants for Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and billionaire George Soros.

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