Column: Trump’s executions set a sicko record for the United States
Words like “mercy” and “justice” don’t belong in the same sentence with President Trump. After four years, we know he can twist even the most poetic aspirations of the Constitution and wield them like a wrecking ball.
Mercy, for Trump, mostly means handing out pardons like shots of rotgut vodka to some of the scurviest people on Earth. The president’s pardons have been an exercise not in compassion but in vice-signaling — another way to show the American people just how vile he can be. And now he’s ladling out a sicko form of justice, in the form of the federal executions he’s determined to ram through until the curtain falls on his presidency at last.
Trump’s pardons and executions are of a piece, adding to a legacy that befouls the reputation of the United States.
Standouts among the undeserving whom Trump has excused since 2017 are Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who ran what even he once called “concentration camps,” and former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, granted clemency in a war crimes case, despite Gallagher’s Navy colleagues describing him as “toxic,” freaking evil” and “willing to kill anything that moved.”
Two weeks ago, the president pardoned his first national security advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who twice confessed to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russians. Post-pardon, Flynn popped off on Twitter, retweeting a petition suggesting the president declare martial law to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. (“When the bombs go off, the blood is on Mike Flynn’s hands,” Paul Yingling, a retired Army colonel, told the Daily Beast.)
On Wednesday, in deference to Trump’s pardon, D.C. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan formally rendered moot the charges against Flynn. “President Trump’s decision to pardon Mr. Flynn is a political decision, not a legal one,” the judge wrote, adding that Flynn’s acceptance of the pardon might even be construed as a confession of guilt.
A host of other Trumpworld ghouls are reportedly hoping for pardons: Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, who’s under federal indictment on charges of ripping off people who gave to Trump’s border wall; Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager in 2015, who is already serving time for tax and bank fraud; and Trump’s coup lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is under federal scrutiny for alleged Ukraine misdeeds.
Maybe they’ll all skate. According to Axios this week, Trump told an advisor he’d grant clemency to “every person who ever talked to me.” He’s reportedly even considering pardoning his kids, just in case. And, says Axios, he’s taken to interrupting people to announce they’re on his “pardon list.” (Many have bristled at the implication, Axios reports.)
And then there’s the ultimate abuse of executive power: self-pardon. He could try it.
So much for the quality of Trump’s mercy.
As for justice, in the president’s hands, it’s amounting to acts that many of us — and most of the rest of the world — would call atrocities: federal executions, death by the state.
Starting in July, the Trump administration ended what had been a 17-year hiatus in the federal death penalty. The president quickly became the most executing president in a century as well as for most executions for any president in one year. As of Friday, he has overseen nine fatal injections at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. All the while, of course, the White House has shown nothing but indifference to the deaths of nearly 300,000 from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four more executions are set to take place before Biden takes office in January. Biden, not incidentally, has promised to work to end the death penalty altogether.
The latest Trump-ordered killing happened Thursday evening. Brandon Bernard’s execution was undertaken so recklessly that even lawyer Alan Dershowitz, usually a Trump defender, protested. Keeping up with newly minted prison reformer Kim Kardashian West, Dershowitz asked that Trump commute Bernard’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.
Dershowitz and Kardashian West rightly pointed out that Bernard was only 18 when he burned evidence in a failed carjacking that ended in two grisly murders. The jurors and prosecutors who convicted Bernard of murder now believe his sentence was unjust because his reasoning in 1999 was that of a minor and his participation in the actual murders is unclear.
If there’s even a hint of a doubt about a death row prisoner’s conviction, clemency should be granted. But that’s assuming a rational president with a micron of decency. Instead we have Trump.
It’s ridiculous to think that Trump could summon the solemnity that should attend life-and-death executive actions. Hurling pardons around willy-nilly to his buddies is swampy behavior of the highest order. And the president’s sinister zeal for executions now extends to a graphic focus on killing techniques: He signed a midnight regulation days ago reinstating previously prohibited methods: firing squads, poison gas and electrocutions.
When President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after Watergate, he said that he believed that, as a child of God, he’d be denied mercy if he failed to show it to Nixon. Such gravity of purpose is nowhere present in Trump’s end-stage pardon-and-execution bacchanalia.
Trump’s up against a deadline: his own removal from office. Until then, he seems determined to be even more evil than the worst of those he has pardoned or condemned.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.