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Trump Decries Disproportionate Drug Penalties While Threatening Dealers With Death: The Former and Possibly Future President Hopes Voters Will Overlook His Incoherence

: Jacob Sullum on

President Joe Biden "was a key figure in passing the 1994 Crime Bill, which disproportionately harmed Black communities through harsh sentencing laws and increased incarceration rates," former President Donald Trump's campaign reminded voters last week. If elected, Trump promised in a speech at the Libertarian National Convention two days later, he will free Ross Ulbricht, who is serving a life sentence for running Silk Road, an online marketplace used by illegal drug vendors.

Trump's criticism of disproportionate drug penalties contradicts his own platform, which threatens defendants like Ulbricht with death. The former and possibly future president wants to have it both ways, slamming Biden for his long history as a zealous drug warrior while portraying himself as even tougher.

Trump has been practicing this dance for a while. During his 2020 presidential campaign, he attacked Biden from the left on drug policy, castigating him for pushing harsh laws that disproportionately hurt Black people.

That stance was part of a political strategy aimed at attracting support from African Americans and white moderates troubled by Biden's criminal justice record. The strategy also included Trump's commutations for nonviolent drug offenders and his support for the First Step Act, a package of sentencing and prison reforms that he signed in December 2018.

One beneficiary of Trump's clemency was Alice Johnson, a first-time offender who had received a life sentence for participating in a Memphis cocaine trafficking operation. "You have many people like Mrs. Johnson," Trump told Fox News in 2018. "There are people in jail for really long terms."

Trump highlighted Johnson's case during his 2019 State of the Union address, in a 2020 Super Bowl ad, and at the 2020 Republican National Convention, where Johnson gave a moving speech. As a Black woman hit with a draconian sentence under inflexible drug laws, Johnson was a useful exhibit in Trump's case that African American voters should be grateful to him and wary of Biden.

Trump later complained that his support for sentencing reform did not yield the political benefit he anticipated. "Did it for African Americans," he told a New York Times reporter in 2022. "Nobody else could have gotten it done. Got zero credit."

One reason for that might be the contradictory signals that Trump was sending even as he bemoaned "very unfair" drug penalties. He expressed admiration for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who likened himself to Adolf Hitler while urging the murder of drug users, and repeatedly recommended the death penalty for drug dealers.

Trump reupped that policy proposal when he launched his current presidential campaign, resulting in a 2023 interview where his mercy collided with his bloodlust. When Fox News anchor Bret Baier noted that someone like Johnson would have been "killed under your plan," Trump was flummoxed.

 

"No, no, no," Trump said. "It would depend on the severity," he added. He also noted that the death penalty he imagined would not apply retroactively to Johnson herself and suggested that, had it been the law at the time, it would have deterred her from getting involved in drug dealing.

Now Trump says Ulbricht, who received a double life sentence plus 40 years for connecting drug dealers with drug consumers, deserves a second chance. "He's already served 11 years," Trump told the Libertarian delegates. "We're gonna get him home. We're gonna get him out."

Trump did not do that as president, which is not the only reason for skepticism. The life sentences that Johnson and Ulbricht received were plainly unjust, Trump says, but death sentences would have been appropriate. Drug laws that disproportionately hurt African Americans are troubling, he thinks, but they should be enforced more aggressively.

Trump decries "increased incarceration rates" even as he promises a crackdown that would imprison more people for conduct that violates no one's rights. Biden was bad, according to Trump's campaign, but Trump is better because he is worse.

The only logic here is political. Even that may prove fallacious if voters notice Trump's incoherence.

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Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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