Trump's praise for extrajudicial killings cancels out his 'law and order' message

Equal justice for everyone doesn't fit the M.O. of a person whose reality is defined via transactions.
Image: Images from the Portland protests and Donald Trump.
Trump has encouraged law enforcement to use lethal force against suspects rather than arrest them — and done almost nothing to tamp down his more violent supporters.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

Since late May, when Black Lives Matter protests flared up around the country, President Donald Trump's re-election campaign has leaned into three words: "law and order." With those three words, Trump revived his 2016 pitch — that he is the only thing standing between the average American and chaos.

As he's dug in his heels with his pro-law enforcement stance, Trump has recently spent a lot of time praising what can only be described as an extrajudicial killing.

If you think that's an exaggeration, listen to Trump's own words. In a rare afternoon rally in North Carolina on Wednesday, Trump lavished praise on U.S. marshals for killing Michael Reinoehl, an alleged member of antifa, in Portland, Oregon, early last month. "We sent in the U.S. marshals, took 15 minutes, it was over. Fifteen minutes it was over. We got him. They knew who he was and didn't want to arrest him, and 15 minutes, that ended," Trump said to applause.

Trump's telling of the story is characteristically muddled. During this summer's protests, Trump and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf ordered federal agents into Portland to protect the federal courthouse, which had become a staging ground for demonstrations. Instead of calming things down, the agents' presence aggravated the situation, drawing even more people to the area.

On one particularly chaotic night in late August, Trump supporters assembled a caravan of vehicles, intent on countering anti-police-brutality protesters. The evening ended with one person dead from a gunshot wound to the chest, who was later identified as Aaron "Jay" Danielson, reportedly a member of the far-right group called Patriot Prayer. The picture of his body, still wearing a hat that bore the group's logo, quickly spread on Twitter overnight. By the early morning of Aug. 30, before Danielson's name had been made public, the president and his supporters had rallied to his cause. The same day, local media named Reinoehl as a suspect. Four days later, Reinoehl was dead.

Authorities alleged that Reinoehl had pointed a gun at officers when they tried to apprehend him, prompting the hail of bullets. But The New York Times reported Tuesday that the law enforcement officials the marshals had deputized may not have even tried to arrest Reinoehl before they killed him. The Times found that, of 22 witnesses, all but one said the law enforcement officials didn't identify themselves as they approached Reinoehl's car. And witnesses recounted that the officers began shooting almost instantaneously upon the their arrival, without having had a weapon brandished at them first. A gun was found in Reinoehl's pocket after he was killed.

It may be tempting to lump Trump in with his predecessors: In one way or another, almost all presidents have shown themselves to favor extrajudicial murder when it suits their needs. The deaths of countless people overseas in the name of whatever ideal we said we were fighting for in any given war or "military campaign" have been signed off on by consecutive administrations for most of the modern era. Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama had his "playbook," delineating just when he could authorize a drone strike against a U.S. citizen as part of his administration's "targeted killing campaign."

But Trump has always been enamored of violence, relishing his calls for police not to worry about injuring suspects in their custody. During the 2016 campaign he promised his rallygoers that he'd pay their legal fees for attacking protesters in the crowd. His refusal to robustly denounce groups like the Proud Boys, despite their love of violence and willingness to start fights to intimidate protesters, was a major moment in the first 2020 presidential debate. And in North Carolina, he seemed to express a certain glee in his support for the marshals who killed Reinoehl, very much acting like the kind of person who would fast-forward through the boring nonviolent parts of the movie "Bloodsport."

It might be different if this were a one-off occurrence. But Trump has been repeating this line about the marshals for a month now. At a Sept. 26 rally in Pennsylvania, he took credit for the shooting, saying he'd inspired the marshals to use lethal force via tweet. "And then I put out on social media, 'Why didn't you arrest him?' And you know what? The U.S. marshals saw it, they went in, and he pulled a gun on 'em, and in 15 minutes it was all over," Trump told his audience. "None of our guys were hurt, and he was gone. This guy was a stone-cold killer, and yet they say he was a protester; he was not a protester. He was an anarchist and a killer. And the U.S. marshals: Thank you, that was an incredible job they did, brave."

And in an interview with Fox News' Jeanine Pirro a little over a week after the shooting, Trump said Reinoehl "was a violent criminal, and the U.S. marshals killed him."

"And I'll tell you something — that's the way it has to be," he said. "There has to be retribution."

Not justice — retribution.

Retribution isn't the end goal of the criminal justice system. Retribution is something that occurs outside those boundaries, where a proportional response is seen as a sign of weakness. Justice has to be worked toward; retribution is something that can be ordered.

But one of the defining hallmarks of the Trump presidency has been his repudiation of the rule of law; equal justice for everyone doesn't fit the M.O. of a person whose reality is defined via transactions. No matter how much his enablers promise fans that "law and order" is more than just a dog whistle to rile up his base against minorities, the fact remains that there's a certain emptiness to the appeal as long as the man charged with enforcing our laws doesn't actually believe they should apply to him.


After that sobering start to your Friday, here are some stories that you should absolutely be reading:

The Washington Post: It turns out intelligence officials warned the White House late last year that Rudy Giuliani was potentially being fed Russian misinformation during his recent trip to Ukraine. What. A. Shock.

The Associated Press: Democrats aren't happy with how friendly Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, has been during Amy Coney Barrett's hearings. Her hug with committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was the last straw for some.

BuzzFeed News: YouTube is finally joining the trend and banning the internet-spawned mass delusion QAnon — sort of. Kind of. Not really.

The Atlantic: Speaking of QAnon, some of its supporters helped generate a wave of anti-Netflix sentiment over the film "Cuties," accusing the streamer's marketing of being pro-pedophilia. Well, an actual victim of pedophilia would like to disagree.

ProPublica: And finally, this a harrowing look at what led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once the global standard for fighting infectious disease, to become an agency battered politically and humbled by the coronavirus.