White House line on crime and punishment is increasingly incoherent

The White house can oppose "excessive punishments" or it can endorse executing drug dealers, but it shouldn't try to do both.
A prison guard opens a locked door with keys inside Angola prison.
A prison guard opens a locked door with keys inside Angola prison. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the "Alcatraz of the South" and "The Farm" is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.Giles Clarke / Getty Images File
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By Steve Benen

It was just a couple of weeks ago when Donald Trump's re-election campaign aired a couple of ads during the Super Bowl, one of which bragged about the president's support for criminal-justice reform. The commercial specifically singled out a woman who was "sentenced to serve life in prison for a non-violent drug offense," who is now free thanks to a law Trump signed.

The ad was wildly misleading, and the woman in question, Alice Johnson, didn't actually benefit from the 2017 law at all. Rather, she's free because celebrity Kim Kardashian lobbied the White House on her behalf. But the broader message was relatively straightforward: the Trump campaign wants voters to see the president as a compassionate leader who's committed to giving people a second chance.

About a week later, Trump welcomed the nation's governors to the White House, where the Republican suggested he saw value in executing drug dealers.

"States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don't have a drug problem. I don't know that our country is ready for that. But if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty -- death penalty -- with a fair but quick trial, they have very little, if any, drug problem. That includes China."

Oh. So over the course of eight days, Trump went from boasting about freeing someone convicted of a non-violent drug offense to touting the virtues of killing people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

Yesterday, in the wake of a controversy following Trump's pardons for well-connected convicts, the president's team shifted gears again.

"The fact is the president is clearly against excessive sentencing, whether it's Rod Blagojevich or Alice Johnson," [Deputy White House Press Secretary] Hogan Gidley said. "These are non-violent offenders."

And while that certainly sounded like a nice line, (a) there are a whole lot of non-violent offenders who lack connections who are currently sitting behind bars; and (b) the president who's ostensibly "against excessive sentencing" talked up the idea of executing drug dealers last week.

The incoherence is hard to miss, but there's an underlying theme: Team Trump's entire understanding of justice is rooted in power and politics, not fairness and law.