This has been a rough month for America’s allies. There was that whole dustup over the British ambassador. And now the US is in a feud with ... Sweden.
It all begins with American rapper A$AP Rocky, who has been in custody in Sweden since July 5 after he was accused of assault following a fight in Stockholm in June. He can’t be let on out bail because Swedish courts don’t use a bail system, and he’s been detained because he’s seen as having the resources to be a flight risk.
President Donald Trump has personally tried to intervene on A$AP Rocky’s behalf with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, largely at the urging of celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West.
But Sweden has basically told Trump: “No can do, rule of law.”
A$AP Rocky (whose real name is Rakim Mayers) was formally charged with assault on Thursday, along with two other suspects believed to be members of his entourage.
A$AP Rocky has defended himself, saying the men he’s accused of attacking were bothering him and harassing others, including sexually harassing some women, and they acted out of self-defense.
Swedish prosecutors dismissed these claims of self-defense, and A$AP Rocky is expected to be held in jail until his trial, which is expected to start Tuesday, July 30.
But Trump doesn’t appear satisfied with these developments, as he made clear Thursday on Twitter.
“Very disappointed in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for being unable to act. Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States,” Trump tweeted. “I watched the tapes of A$AP Rocky, and he was being followed and harassed by troublemakers. Treat Americans fairly! #FreeRocky.”
Very disappointed in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for being unable to act. Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States. I watched the tapes of A$AP Rocky, and he was being followed and harassed by troublemakers. Treat Americans fairly! #FreeRocky— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2019
Trump then accused Sweden of somehow taking advantage of the United States.
“We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around,” he tweeted, without making it clear what it is the US does. He concluded, “Sweden should focus on its real crime problem!” which seemed to be a veiled reference to fake news that Trump repeated about crimes committed by migrants in Sweden in 2017.
Give A$AP Rocky his FREEDOM. We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Sweden should focus on its real crime problem! #FreeRocky— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2019
A$AP Rocky’s status — and Trump’s decision to personally take up the cause — is about more than this individual case. Some have accused Trump of using this as a cynical attempt to repair his image after his racist tweets insulting the four US congresswomen known as “the Squad.”
It also very much speaks to Trump’s distinctive style of diplomacy, one ruled by personal access and a specific interest in freeing Americans abroad.
What to know about A$AP Rocky’s case
A$AP Rocky has been held since July 5 following a public altercation in Stockholm on June 30. As Zeeshan Aleem previously explained for Vox, the rapper and his companions say that the two men they fought with refused to stop following them and were harassing others:
However, footage published on the Swedish news outlet Aftonbladet seems to show Rocky hurling another man to the asphalt with enough force to lift his feet off of the ground. Another video shows the attacked man trying to defend himself from a flurry of kicks and punches while curled up on the street.
A$AP Rocky also posted two Instagram videos that appear to show the rapper and his companions asking two men in white shirts to stop following their entourage. “WE DONT KNOW THESE GUYS AND WE DIDNT WANT TROUBLE, THEY FOLLOWED US 4 BLOCKS, AND THEY WERE SLAPPING GIRLS BUTTS WHO PASSED,” the caption read.
Another video the rapper posted after that shows a much longer interaction between the two men and A$AP Rocky that includes his bodyguard. The two videos look to be separate clips, but the second shows A$AP’s bodyguard confronting the two the men and asking them to leave.
The video is a bit shaky, but there’s a scuffle, and you can see one of the men hitting A$AP Rocky’s bodyguard with headphones. Toward the end of the video, a woman, who doesn’t appear onscreen, can be heard saying, “That other guy slapped my ass and my girlfriend’s ass.”
One of two individuals in the videos has been identified as Mustafa Jafari, and he is the guy A$AP Rocky is accused of assaulting. Prosecutors also investigated the men, including Jafari, for abuse and assault, but that case wasn’t pursued, Swedish prosecutors said.
A$AP Rocky and his attorneys have protested the allegations, saying he acted in self-defense. In a Change.org petition, the rapper’s team has also alleged that A$AP Rocky faces “inhumane” conditions, including “24/7 solitary confinement, restriction of amenities for the most basic of human functions, access to palatable and life sustaining food as well as unsanitary conditions.” About 630,000 thousand people have signed the petition.
But as Aleem reported:
Henrik Olsson Lilja, who was Rocky’s lawyer before he changed counsel, said the rapper is being given plenty of food, but did say not all cells at the facility have their own toilets (those detained there share bathroom facilities). Furthermore, Sweden’s ambassador to the US told the New York Times Rocky was not and is not in solitary confinement, but that he had been given his own room so that he might have some privacy. She also said he is allowed to socialize with others in the jail in common spaces.
That hasn’t diminished criticism of Swedish prosecutors, who’ve defended their decision to hold and now charge Rocky. In responding to critics, Daniel Suneson, Sweden’s public prosecutor, said that Jafari had been kicked, punched, and hit with a glass bottle. Suneson said the state has evidence supporting that conclusion, including CCTV footage and witness testimony.
None of this has stopped the controversy over Rocky’s arrest or interrupted some of the hard-to-resolve questions about the case — including issues of racism — even before Trump got involved.
Lots of public figures are advocating for Rocky’s release, not just Trump
Rocky’s arrest has drawn public outcry from celebrities and lawmakers alike. But two in particular — Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, who both have personal relationships with Trump — prompted the president to get involved.
According to reports, Kardashian contacted Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to lobby for Rocky’s cause. Trump also tweeted that he spoke to West about Rocky’s situation, and that he’d promised to “see what we can do about helping A$AP Rocky.”
Trump followed his call with Kanye with an announcement that he had spoken with Swedish Prime Minister Löfven, “who assured me that American citizen A$AP Rocky will be treated fairly.” Trump also said that he had “assured [Löfven] that A$AP was not a flight risk and offered to personally vouch for his bail.”
....Our teams will be talking further, and we agreed to speak again in the next 48 hours!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2019
Löfven’s press secretary, Toni Eriksson, said the call was “friendly and respectful” and that the prime minister had reminded Trump “that in Sweden everyone is equal before the law and that the government cannot and will not attempt to influence the legal proceedings.”
Even before the president’s intervention, some Rocky supporters had suggested that race may have been a factor in the rapper’s arrest.
Several members of Congress, including Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), who also represents Harlem, where Rocky is originally from, held a press conference protesting the rapper’s treatment and what they called potential “human rights violations.”
“I think that race matters and plays a factor across the world,” Espaillat said. “I think that it may have played a factor as well in Stockholm.”
Others have echoed this sentiment, including Renee Black, Rocky’s mother. She recently told TMZ: “I don’t want to call the race card, but that’s what it’s looking like.”
And as Vulture noted, rapper G-Eazy was also arrested and detained in Sweden last year for assault and drug possession, but pleaded guilty, paid a fine, and was released after two days. G-Eazy commented in a post, “The difference between me and Rocky’s treatment and process in Sweden brings to mind two concepts that disgustingly go hand in hand: white privilege and systemic racism. Let’s call it what it is.”
Complicating matters is Trump’s public intervention and his emphasis on race when discussing the case. Shortly after his racist attacks on “the Squad,” he told reporters at the White House: “Many, many members of the African American community have called me, friends of mine, and said, ‘Can you help?’”
“I personally don’t know A$AP Rocky, but I can tell you that he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country, and when I say African American, I think I can really say from everybody in the country, because we’re all one,” the president continued.
And in a tweet, Trump claimed that “Sweden has let our African American Community down.”
Critics have accused Trump of seizing on Rocky’s arrest to deflect from his own racist comments, which dominated headlines. That has made it a bit harder for many, including people in Sweden, to take his advocacy seriously, as the Washington Post reported. Trump’s latest attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) are likely to add the perception that he is trying to elevate this cause for his personal gain.
And, as Sweden’s government has made clear, top government officials can’t intervene in the judicial system, no matter how much Trump might like them to do so.
“Sweden and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven have explained and emphasized to the White House and President Trump respectively, the complete independence of the Swedish judicial system, prosecutors and courts,” Mikael Lindström, the country’s acting press secretary, said in a statement. “In Sweden everyone is equal before the law. The Government is not allowed, and will not attempt, to influence the legal proceedings, which are now ongoing.”
The A$AP Rocky case shows that for Trump, politics is personal
Trump may use Rocky’s cause to benefit himself, but it didn’t hurt that Rocky had advocates in Kardashian and West. Both have relationships with the president, and Kardashian helped successfully lobby for the pardon of a 64-year-old nonviolent drug offender, Alice Johnson, last year.
The US — specifically the State Department — can and does advocate for US citizens who’ve been arrested or detained abroad. As any consular officer would tell you, liaising and advocating on behalf of US citizens in legal trouble in foreign countries is a big part of the job. And sure, those cases sometimes get moved up the chain of command to high-level officials or, on rare occasions, the president’s desk.
But that’s unusual when US citizens are detained in countries with strong traditions of rule of law and due process, which Sweden definitely has. (By some measures, it might be better than the US.)
This isn’t to say that Swedish prosecutors are correct here, or that A$AP Rocky and his entourage are guilty of what they’ve been charged with, or that A$AP Rocky’s complaints about his treatment don’t have merit. And that is actually the role of the US government, including Trump: to make sure A$AP Rocky and any US citizens are treated fairly, have access to attorneys, and are being held in humane conditions.
But fulfilling that role doesn’t necessarily mean circumventing another country’s judicial processes. And from Sweden’s perspective, it wouldn’t exactly be a good look if the government caved to pressure from the US and allowed a foreign country to meddle in its justice system just because this was Trump’s distraction du jour — or because A$AP Rocky is a famous and well-connected figure.
As former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “If you cave in to one, you could be certain that others might try to do the same. The United States is a country friendly to us — others might not necessarily fit that description.”
There’s no doubt that Trump has, often to his credit, made a priority of bringing detained Americans home. It’s arguably been one of the most successful parts of his foreign policy. And Trump revels in these wins; you might remember, in 2017, when he advocated for the UCLA basketball players accused of shoplifting in China, and then proceeded to get in a public fight with one of the players’ dads over him not being grateful enough.
Last May, Trump secured the release of three American hostages from North Korea. In October, his administration persuaded Turkey to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor detained in Turkey. This May, he secured the freedom of another hostage in Yemen.
But Rocky isn’t a political hostage, and he’s not in a hostile or undemocratic country. He’s in Sweden. There may be legitimate questions about the length of time he was held without being charged, and the conditions he was being held in — and the US, again, should be advocating for his fair treatment and a speedy trial (which now appears to be happening). Trump’s attempts to do more than that will continue to fail, though this probably won’t be the last of his tweets on the subject.