Rapper A$AP Rocky’s trial began in Stockholm, Sweden, on Tuesday, and the Trump administration sent a very notable guest: the US presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The New York Times and Politico reported that Robert C. O’Brien, the US top diplomat responsible for negotiating the release of Americans held abroad, is in Stockholm to monitor the trial of A$AP Rocky, whose real name is Rakim Mayers.
Rocky and two members of his entourage have been charged with assault. His arrest became a sore point in the US-Sweden relationship last week when President Donald Trump personally intervened in the case, speaking directly with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, and then made that involvement very public on Twitter.
Prosecutors say Rocky, who pleaded not guilty to the charges on Tuesday, assaulted 19-year-old Mustafa Jafari last month while in Sweden on a music tour. Rocky has said he was acting in self-defense, as Jafari was following him and harassing others. If convicted, Rocky could face up to two years in prison.
The rapper has been held in custody since about July 5, though he wasn’t formally charged until last week. Some of his defenders have decried the terms of his detainment, saying he has been held in unsanitary conditions and put in solitary confinement.
And then, Trump stepped in — reportedly at the prompting of Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian West. Trump advertised his diplomatic efforts in a series of rather undiplomatic tweets in which he promised to pay Rocky’s bail (Sweden doesn’t have a bail system). He accused Sweden of not treating Americans fairly and nodding to an old conspiracy theory about immigrant crime in Sweden.
“We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around,” Trump tweeted on July 20. “Sweden should focus on its real crime problem!”
Sweden’s prime minister, however, has pushed back, explaining that his government can’t intercede in Rocky’s trial because of the rule of law. “The government cannot and will not attempt to influence the legal proceedings,” Löfven’s press secretary said.
But the arrival of America’s top hostage negotiator in Stockholm during Rocky’s trial is certainly a sign that Rocky’s case remains a top priority for the White House.
Ruth Newman, spokesperson for the US Embassy in Stockholm, told the Swedish news agency TT that O’Brien was in Sweden “to look after the well-being of American citizens, which is always our top priority.”
O’Brien’s presence adds another odd twist to an already strange case, and reveals yet again Trump’s idiosyncratic approach to diplomacy, which mostly involves personal access and prestige.
A brief overview of the A$AP Rocky case
Rocky’s trial began Tuesday, with testimony from Jafari. According to the New York Times, Jafari testified that he was with a friend when he saw Rocky and his group in a burger restaurant, and had approached, asking them if they’d seen a friend. Instead, Jafari claims, that Rocky’s bodyguard pushed him and lifted him by the neck to remove him, breaking Jafari’s headphones.
Jafari said he threw the headphones back at the bodyguard, and continued to follow to complain about the broken headphones — until he was attacked by Rocky and his group, including hitting him with a bottle over the head and kicking him while was on the ground. (Rocky’s attorneys have denied a bottle was used in the altercation.)
Video of the altercation was published in Swedish media, though Rocky also posted videos on the Instagram account, including one of Jafari throwing headphones at the bodyguard. The rapper has continued to defend himself by saying the men were following him and harassing him and others, and he was defending himself. Rocky is supposed to testify on Thursday, and the trial could wrap up by the end of the week.
Rocky’s arrest has drawn public outcry from celebrities and lawmakers alike, including those who argued that race was a factor in the rapper’s arrest and long detention.
But two in particular — Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, who both have personal relationships with Trump — prompted the president to get involved.
According to reports, Kardashian contacted Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to lobby for Rocky’s cause. Trump also tweeted that he spoke to West about Rocky’s situation, and that he’d promised to “see what we can do about helping A$AP Rocky.”
Trump followed his call with Kanye with an announcement that he had spoken with 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.”
Löfven’s press secretary, Toni Eriksson, said that 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.”
But Trump didn’t accept this explanation, and he continued to publicly lobby for the Swedish government to release Rocky.
“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 last week. “I watched the tapes of A$AP Rocky, and he was being followed and harassed by troublemakers. Treat Americans fairly! #FreeRocky.”
Sweden held firm: “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.
But O’Brien being dispatched to Stockholm shows they’re not necessarily dropping the issue.
The US does need to advocate for Americans abroad. But the hostage envoy probably shouldn’t be in Sweden.
O’Brien told the New York Times that “the president asked me to come here and support these American citizens.”
“I’ll be here until they come home,” O’Brien added.
The US — specifically the State Department and its various embassies — 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 doesn’t typically happen in cases where 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.)
Rocky isn’t exactly a hostage, either. That’s doesn’t mean he’s guilty, or that some of the complaints about his treatment don’t have merit — the US can, and should, be looking into those accusations.
But Rocky is being held in a democratic country with a strong rule of law where he’s afforded due process. That isn’t the case for the handful of Americans held in places such as Iran and Russia whose cases should be at the top of O’Brien’s portfolio.
As some experts have pointed out, it’s not exactly a great look for the White House to be devoting so much time and energy to the Rocky case when there are Americans being held abroad indefinitely in countries without fair or apolitical judicial systems.
This is all so ridiculous but it's also incredibly infuriating, esp when there are at least a half dozen Americans sitting in Iranian prisons, some of them for years. What is the Trump administration doing to free Siamak & Baqr Namazi, Xiyue Wang, Michael White, Bob Levinson? https://t.co/5OIfHFOQha— Suzanne Maloney (@MaloneySuzanne) July 30, 2019
“His merits aside, it’s a cruel joke for the families of real hostages like #AustinTice [a journalist missing in Syria] and the Namazis [who are being held in Iran] to see the administration send the hostage envoy into this situation,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings, also wrote on Twitter.
If he’s serious, he could focus on the AmCits detained in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where his own State Department says there is no due process. https://t.co/Rh9oKphk9I— Tamara Cofman Wittes (@tcwittes) July 30, 2019
The Trump administration’s ability to free American hostages abroad has been one of the most successful elements of Trump’s foreign policy, as he seems to take these wins personally and had some notable successes, including freeing multiple prisoners in North Korea and securing the release of pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey last year.
But Rocky’s situation doesn’t quite fit with that. The US government can and should advocate for the rapper’s fair treatment, but it can’t apply pressure on the country’s judicial process that, for now, appears to be working as it should. It’s also not a great look for the administration that someone with access and connections gets the full weight and support of the US government.
And it will do little to ease Swedish-US tensions over this case. Sending a top White House official to the proceedings looks a little like defiance after Sweden repeatedly told the US its government can’t interfere.