I’m trying to locate this on the spectrum between “take him seriously but not literally,” as his supporters do, and “take him literally but not seriously,” as the media does. I think it falls somewhere in the gray zone of stuff he’d like to do and would do if American norms were different. But since they aren’t, he’s left musing wistfully about how much better things would be if law enforcement could just take the gloves off with the bad guys, a theme he’s returned to occasionally as president.
It’s also a point he’s reportedly made in private. The fact that we’re hearing it now fits with POTUS’s drift recently towards “letting Trump be Trump,” to borrow a phrase from Corey Lewandowski. He was enthusiastic about gun control yesterday; he declared a trade war on steel and aluminum imports this morning; now here he is fantasizing about a Duterte-type solution to America’s drug problem. All of those positions are what you’d expect from a nationalist strongman. Maybe the days of POTUS rubber-stamping conservative policy pushed by Ryan and McConnell are over.
“He says that a lot,” said a source who’s spoken to Trump at length about the subject. “He says, ‘When I ask the prime minister of Singapore do they have a drug problem [the prime minister replies,] ‘No. Death penalty’.”…
But the president doesn’t just joke about it. According to five sources who’ve spoken with Trump about the subject, he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty…
Trump has said he would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America, though he’s privately admitted it would probably be impossible to get a law this harsh passed under the American system.
That’s from Jonathan Swan, who followed up with his story on Twitter:
I’ve learned in past two days that Trump has talked up the Chinese, Filipino and Singaporean systems of killing drug dealers to even more people than I originally thought. List includes members of Congress (including some in leadership) & foreign leaders.
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) February 27, 2018
Kellyanne Conway told Swan that when Trump talks about executing drug dealers he’s talking about major traffickers, particularly the sort of scum who specialize in highly lethal synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Why execute the man who poisons another with his own hand while sparing the man who floods a county with drugs which he knows will end up killing many people? Lay aside the question of whether the death penalty would be a much stronger deterrent to traffickers than a long prison sentence would. And lay aside the question of how easy or difficult it’d be for the D.A. to show that a particular lethal dose originated with a particular trafficker who had trafficked a particular amount of drugs in total. Is there a moral case for punishing major dealers with death? Of course there is, and it would produce an interesting public and constitutional debate if Trump pushed for a federal law handing judges the power to order death for certain classes of especially dangerous traffickers. It might not be bad politics either, with Democrats stuck between signaling their seriousness about opioids by siding with Trump and maintaining their generally anti-death-penalty stance.
But c’mon. What Trump has in mind here ideally isn’t extending the federal capital punishment guidelines. This is a guy who’s congratulated Duterte personally on the “unbelievable job” he’s doing in cracking down on drugs in the Philippines. That “unbelievable job” includes cops and “vigilantes” killing literally thousands of people in the streets, not after a trial and 20 years of appeals. Duterte, in fact, has fantasized about killing all of the country’s drug addicts — not dealers or traffickers, but addicts. If Trump didn’t have a history of admiring ruthless strongmen in other countries, especially when they crack down hard on dissenters, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt on his sweet talk with Duterte. But he’s not a fan of due process (except when it comes to men accused of abusing women). The sort of “toughness” with drug dealers he’d *like* to show, I assume, has nothing to do with trials and sentencing.
That shouldn’t stop him from introducing a death penalty proposal for traffickers, but if you’re seeing civil libertarians on social media grousing about his comments here, that’s why. It’s not that major drug dealers don’t deserve major punishments. It’s that, after nearly three years as a politician, Trump’s strongman pretensions still make people nervous.