Trump Time Capsule #75: Trials by Military Tribunals

So far, the people held at Guantanamo and tried by military tribunals have not included U.S. citizens. Vote for change! Vote Trump! (US Navy photo via Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In an interview with the Miami Herald today, a man who could become the next president said that if it were up to him, U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist involvement could be sent to Guantanamo and handled by military tribunals, rather than tried in normal courts.

Here is what the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says on the topic:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This is part of the same document that Khizr Khan wondered whether Donald Trump had ever read.

Of course you could make a case that unusual circumstances require unusual measures: Abraham Lincoln imposed martial law during the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson suppressed free speech during World War I. Franklin Roosevelt notoriously authorized the internment of ethnically Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The entirety of the post-9/11 era has involved tensions along the frontier between liberty and security, and elaborations of the differences between the rights of people in general and the additional rights (under U.S. law) of U.S. citizens.

You could make a case—but Trump didn’t even pretend to try. Here is the extent of his “thinking” on an issue involving first principles of liberty, constitutional balance, and how a democracy maintains its values while defending itself:

Asked about Guantánamo in the past, Trump has said he would like to “load it up with bad dudes.”…

“Would you try to get the military commissions — the trial court there — to try U.S. citizens?” a reporter asked.

“Well, I know that they want to try them in our regular court systems, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t like that at all,” he said. “I would say they could be tried there, that would be fine.”


“I don’t like that at all”—such is his case against today’s understanding of constitutional protections. “That would be fine.” Actually, no.

And still, as the clock ticks down to 87 days until the election, we have: no tax returns; no plausible medical report (for the North Korean News Service version of a report, see this); no flinching by the likes of Ryan, McConnell, McCain, Portman, Rubio, Toomey, Ayotte, et al on what it would mean to have this man in command.