The Law-Enforcement Abuses That Don’t Bother Trump

The president believes that those who oppose him should be punished, but that those who support him should be free to do as they please.

An illustration of law enforcement and Donald Trump.
Debby Wong / Stephen Maturen / Getty / The Atlantic

President Donald Trump has seen abusive law enforcement before—stared it in the face, called it by its name, denounced it.

He did not, to be sure, see the killing of George Floyd—the latest African American man to be killed by a police officer—as a reason to condemn abusive policing, although video of Floyd’s death prompted millions of Americans to recoil in horror and sparked outrage, protest, and violence nationwide. The president has been mostly quiet on that subject, and when he has spoken, he has done so in the passive voice, decrying it as a “grave tragedy” and a “terrible thing.” Then he has tended to change the subject quickly to the unrest in response to Floyd’s death.

Nor did he find the indefensible police reaction to many of the protests—a reaction that has been needlessly violent and confrontational, and that has often targeted bystanders and reporters—a reason to condemn abusive policing.

About such police tactics, in fact, Trump seems almost gleeful. “LAW & ORDER!” he tweeted yesterday. He complained that “Liberal Governors and Mayors must get MUCH tougher or the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done” in another tweet. And another time: “STRENGTH!” In a call with governors today, he called protesters “scum” and demanded that state law enforcement “dominate” people out in the streets. And, of course, there’s his famous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a statement so incendiary that it forced Twitter to, for the first time ever, flag the president’s tweet for “glorifying violence.”

No, for Trump this past week, only one victim of abusive law enforcement was worth talking about: his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump actually does not mind police misconduct, even violence, as a general matter. Back in the summer of 2017, speaking to police officers on Long Island, the president urged them not to take such care to protect suspects. “I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ Like when you guys put someone in the car and you’re protecting their head [with your hand]? … I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay?’” The comments were so inappropriate that the then-head of the Drug Enforcement Administration wrote an email to his entire workforce reemphasizing the importance of “Rule of Law” and “Respect and Compassion” in response to the president’s “condon[ing of] police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement.”

Given this history—and the Long Island comments were not an isolated incident—it’s not really a surprise that night after night, as protesters have gathered across the country to express grief and anger over the persistent police abuse of black Americans, the president has instead voiced an instinctive identification with the police. The past few days have seen numerous unjustified arrests and injuries, and even police attacking demonstrators with cars. Yet to the extent that Trump has weighed in about the police’s behavior at all, it has been only to encourage officers to be more violent.

But don’t think that Trump is incapable of mustering outrage over the misconduct of law enforcement. He actually spends a lot of time and energy speaking on the matter. It’s just that, as far as he is concerned, misconduct appears only when the law enforcement in question is directed at him.

The most recent focus of Trump’s righteous indignation at supposed abuses of power by whom he calls “dirty cops” is the case of Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the course of the bureau’s investigation into Russian election interference. In recent weeks, the Justice Department turned Flynn’s case upside down, requesting that the court dismiss the prosecution on the grounds that he had been railroaded by FBI investigators. And on Friday, the administration declassified the FBI transcripts of Flynn’s phone calls with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak—the subject of Flynn’s lies to the bureau.

All this has been done in the name of demonstrating the impropriety of the Flynn prosecution—if not quite the man’s innocence, certainly the extent to which he was a victim of unconscionable wrongdoing by the FBI. “A BIG day for Justice in the USA!” Trump tweeted when the Justice Department moved to drop the charges against Flynn. When it was announced that the call transcripts would be publicly released, he retweeted a message suggesting that the documents would show Flynn’s blamelessness—and, indeed, that’s what Flynn’s defenders went on to argue when the materials became public.

Yet what was the supposed villainy in the set-up or railroading of Flynn? Needless to say, Flynn was not physically mistreated, much less killed. He was not even arrested. There are smaller-scale forms of police abuse, of course—but Flynn was not a victim of those either.

The unforgivable FBI offense against Flynn was that two FBI agents showed up in his office and politely asked him some questions about his conversations with the Russian ambassador; when he made misstatements in response, they asked him whether he was sure he hadn’t said certain things the call transcripts clearly reflected he had said. The newly public transcripts show that Flynn brought up the matter of U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador—the same matter he told the FBI he had no memory of discussing—and that the two conversed about the issue at some length. Despite what the president’s supporters say, Flynn’s repeated statements to investigators that he didn’t remember that conversation are just not credible. So after willfully and repeatedly lying to federal investigators, he was—months later—held accountable for those lies.

George Floyd was murdered for far less.

And yet the president seems able to mention Floyd only on his way to denouncing protesters and “antifa” and promising muscular police action—which he cheerfully conflates with further abuses—against them. Only in Flynn does he find a true victim, and law enforcement that cannot be redeemed through the use of violence. (He never suggests that the FBI should respond in a tough manner to, say, a QAnon rally.)

There’s a racial element to this, clearly. Trump seems characterologically incapable of identifying with black victims of police violence, and he likely also sees some benefit in encouraging racial resentment toward black protesters in the white Americans who make up his base of support.

But there is a personal aspect to Trump’s response too. The president understands Flynn as a victim because the Flynn case is ultimately about Trump. Flynn’s enemies—the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the press that broke the story about the incoming national security adviser’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador—are all Trump’s perceived enemies. Flynn’s humiliation made Trump look foolish. His prosecution emphasized the corruption of the senior leaders Trump had brought in. And the entire tawdry episode made vivid what so many people already suspected: that there was something untoward and inappropriate in Trumpworld’s engagement with the Russian Federation. To turn Flynn into a victim of police misconduct is to try to erase the stain.

On an even more basic level, Trump likes things that place him at the center of attention. Unlike the Russia story—which has Trump, and Trump’s vindication, as the focus—the protests are hard to fit into this framework. They involve, after all, other people’s suffering. According to The New York Times, Trump has been struggling to grasp this concept: “Aides repeatedly have tried to explain to him that the protests were not only about him, but about broader, systemic issues related to race.”

The key point here is that Trump does not mean anything remotely neutral when he crows about “law and order.” He doesn’t mean that Flynn should have to follow the law. He doesn’t mean that the police should be held to exacting standards of propriety in dealing with demonstrators or suspects’ heads. He means that those who oppose him should be punished and those who support him—or simply those for whom he has solicitude—should be free to do as they please. So even as he urges the police to be tough with protesters, he eyes relatively routine FBI tactics with hostility that would make a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union blush. And even as he threatens protesters with the aggressive enforcement of federal law, he insists that it should not touch his own world.

A much-quoted aphorism attributed to onetime Peruvian President Óscar Benavides sums up this approach: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

That is, of course, not how Trump’s defenders like to express the sentiment. Speaking on her Fox News show the other night, Laura Ingraham tried instead to create a unified field theory of police abuses that links Trump’s travails to those of African Americans.

“And to our African American fellow citizens, I say this,” she declared. “Given his own experience with an out-of-control FBI and unfair investigation, given all the work on criminal-justice reform, President Trump knows how poisonous and out of control law-enforcement process can be.”

One suspects that there are not too many black men who, having faced violence at the hands of police, came away from the encounter realizing that at last they understood how Trump and Flynn must feel.