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Trump's embrace of Ashli Babbitt is new way to politicize law enforcement

There's nothing nonpolitical in Donald Trump's world.

On Jan. 6, Ashli Babbitt, along with thousands of other supporters of former President Donald Trump, stormed into the U.S. Capitol. She tried to be the first in the mob to climb through broken glass in a door to the Speaker’s Lobby as members of Congress stood nearby. Instead, Babbitt was shot and killed by a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

Now the former president who, during his time in office, politicized the courts, the media and our elections is doing the same with law enforcement by turning Babbitt into a political martyr.

As president, Trump regularly defended police officers when they used deadly force against Americans, and even encouraged them to do so. Be “rough,” he counseled the police. “Please don’t be too nice” when putting people into paddy wagons.

But with Babbitt, Trump has adopted a very different tone. She was an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman,” he told Fox Business host and key Trump enabler Maria Bartiromo on Sunday. Last week, he said there was “no reason” for Babbitt to have been killed. Days before that, he sent an email to supporters asking, “Who shot Ashli Babbitt?”

The name of the person who pulled the trigger has not made public. But considering Babbitt had marched on the Capitol in support of the former president’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen, Donald Trump is, arguably, the person most responsible for her death.

That Trump is being nakedly hypocritical is about as surprising as finding out water is wet. And certainly, the effort to portray Babbitt as a victim rather than an instigator of violence and a threat to members of Congress is part of a larger effort to whitewash the events of Jan. 6.

But this is more than just Trump applying his usual double standard. The martyrdom of Babbitt suggests there should be a two-tiered justice system in Trump's America: one where the police have carte blanche to use violence against his political enemies and the other where they must stand down when facing the fury of his supporters.

But you cannot have a healthy democracy if citizens are told that law enforcement should be more loyal to a political party than to the rule of law.

As Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University, said to me, “When you have law enforcement, the direct face of the government for most citizens, now an instrument of partisan politics rather than a neutral arbiter of the law … that is extremely problematic.”

Trump is not alone in picking this fight over Babbitt’s death. He is instead riffing on a narrative that is already gathering speed on the far right.

In May, Rep. Paul A. Gosar, R-Ariz., claimed at a congressional hearing that Babbitt was “executed.”

On Fox News more recently, Tucker Carlson offered support for Russian President Vladimir Putin when he questioned the circumstances around Babbitt’s death. "Who did shoot Ashli Babbitt and why don't we know?" Carlson asked. "Are anonymous federal agents now allowed to kill unarmed women who protest the regime? That's OK now? No, it's not OK.”

In Trump’s mind — and in the minds of too many of his supporters — the allegiance of the courts, the media, election oversight and law enforcement should be to him.

Carlson, who previously defended former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, has also brought members of Babbitt’s family on his show for sympathetic interviews.

The mantle of defending Babbitt’s honor has also been taken up by Fox’s Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Babbitt “wasn’t threatening anybody,” Levin said, but rather “was walking around with the rest, and boom.” Levin’s statement is contradicted by the human ability to see filmed images.

For those with long memories, all of this no doubt sounds discordant. Haven’t the same people now criticizing law enforcement supported the police in other circumstances when deadly force was used?

Indeed, last fall, after Michael Reinoehl, a suspect in the shooting of a far-right protester in Portland, Oregon, was killed by law enforcement officers, Trump praised the killing.

"We sent in the U.S. marshals," Trump said at a campaign rally in North Carolina. “Took 15 minutes, it was over.”

Trump also suggested the marshals “didn't want to arrest him.” Considering there is evidence suggesting Reinoehl was never given a chance to surrender before being killed in a hail of bullets, Trump’s words seem even more disturbing.

The idea that the police should punish the former president’s political opponents while standing down for his supporters represents a new and dangerous assault on the basic underpinnings of our democratic system.

Over the past several months, Trump and his Republican allies have politicized election monitoring, with GOP state legislatures going so far as to pass laws that give them the right to potentially overturn election results.

Before that, Republicans politicized the federal courts by blocking former President Barack Obama from appointing a justice to the Supreme Court in 2016 and ramming through a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020. Trump’s constant deriding of reporting that put the president in a negative light as "fake news" accelerated the decadeslong campaign on the right to turn the press into a partisan piñata as well. Now, whether intentionally or not, Republicans are doing the same thing to the police.

The cumulative effect of Trump and the GOP’s assault on one nonpartisan institution after another, Berman said, is turning what are supposed to be “nonpartisan” elements of America’s democratic institutions into “instruments of partisan politics.”

Clearly, in Trump’s mind — and in the minds of too many of his supporters — the allegiance of the courts, the media, election oversight and law enforcement should be to him. But now that he has taken up Babbitt’s cause, it seems a matter of when, not if, other prominent Republicans follow suit.

The veneration of Babbitt is more than just an effort to change the narrative around Jan. 6 — as bad as that is in itself. It represents another dangerous new direction for the GOP, one that treats law enforcement as simply another arm in our unending partisan fights.