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Trump’s latest comments on New York get both terrorism and the law badly wrong

Trump calls civilian prosecution of terrorism “a joke.” It’s anything but.

President Trump Holds Cabinet Meeting At The White House (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In his first public remarks after the terrorist attack in New York City on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump simultaneously managed to both insult the US criminal justice system and propose something that sounded scarily like a crackdown on basic civil liberties — all within the span of just a few minutes.

Trump’s comments came near the end of a prepared statement on the attack given to reporters on Wednesday afternoon. The president called the legal system’s method for handling terrorism prosecutions “a joke” and “a laughing stock,” arguing its insufficiently harsh punishments made future attacks more likely. He called for replacing it with an unspecified “far quicker and far greater” new system that would inflict greater pain on “these animals."

Here’s the full quote:

We have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They’ll go through court for years. At the end, they’ll be — who knows what happens. We need quick justice, and we need strong justice. Much quicker and much stronger than we have right now, because what we have right now is a joke, and it’s a laughing stock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.

This is verifiably false pretty much from top to bottom.

There is no evidence that US courts are unable to prosecute terrorism suspects in a timely fashion. The opposite: Since 9/11, more than 620 individuals have been convicted on terrorism charges in 63 separate federal courts, according to a May 2017 count by Human Rights First. None of these terrorists have broken out of prison, and none of the courts have suffered retaliatory attacks.

Moreover, the US already tried to set up an alternative system — the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that George W. Bush established after 9/11 — and it was a disaster.

Military courts are well equipped to try US service members who violate military laws, but aren’t set up to deal with complex and wide-ranging constitutional and classification issues raised by major terrorism prosecution. This makes them slower and puts verdicts on less sure legal footing. In the same time span that civilian courts convicted 620 individuals on terrorism charges, military commissions convicted a grand total of eight people.

“The Guantanamo Military Commissions are a failed experiment,” Marine Gen. John G. Baker, the chief defense counsel at the Guantanamo Bay war court, said in a September speech. “Considering the gravity and importance of these cases, that failure is one that hurts us all.”

This isn’t just a problem for military courts. Whatever system Trump might want to set up as an alternative to the normal court process would have the same issues of ad hoc rules and dubious legal authority. Constitutional rights to due process and fair trial procedures apply to anyone living in the United States, citizen and noncitizen alike. The president appears to edging toward saying those protections should be shredded — or, at very least, circumvented — for people his administration accuses of being terrorists.

It would be bad enough if Trump were saying this on his own. But Sen. John McCain, perhaps Trump’s fiercest critic in the Republican Party, argued for suspending the constitutional rights of the suspect in the New York case, saying that he “should not be read Miranda rights,” as “enemy combatants are not entitled to them.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Trump-skeptical Republican, took a similar line, saying “the moment you read someone their Miranda rights there is an impediment to interrogation.”

This is not true — lawful civilian interrogations have been, per the FBI, the source of some of the most valuable information on terrorist groups the US government has — but that didn’t stop Graham for calling for a return to the bad old days right after 9/11.

It’s a reminder that Trump didn’t come out of nowhere; that he is, in many ways, a blunter and more honest expression of ideas that even his opponents inside the GOP widely accept.