One morning last week, President Trump went after the “dirty cops,” as he has called them in the past, complaining that “Police Organizations & National Security Organizations were used to SPY on a Campaign.” Sixty-one minutes later, he was extolling officers as heroes and vowing to stop anyone who wants to defund “our great Police.”
Mr. Trump is the “president of law and order,” as he calls himself, except when it comes to himself or his friends. He has little patience for criticism of law enforcement, unless it is his. If the police shove a 75-year-old peaceful protester to the ground, cracking his head, it must be the protester’s fault. If the police prosecute one of his friends for tax fraud or perjury, it must be that the officers are corrupt.
The seemingly contradictory messages come as the nation is debating the proper role of law enforcement in the United States after the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. On Tuesday in the Rose Garden, the president signed a modest executive order encouraging police departments to improve training and bar chokeholds in most circumstances. He said he had met with relatives of several black men killed in encounters with officers, declaring that “all Americans mourn by your side.”
But none of the family members joined him for the ceremony and, instead, the president was surrounded by police officials as he rejected more sweeping proposals to fight racial injustice and insisted that only a “very tiny” number of officers were bad. “The vast majority of police officers are selfless, courageous public servants,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re great men and women.”
He does not feel that way, however, about the law enforcement officials who have investigated his own matters or come after his associates. Rather than great people, they are “bad people” and “crooked people” and “human scum” and “dishonest slime bags.” In the past 18 months, the president has tweeted the phrases “dirty cop” or “dirty cops” at least 20 times and used it on camera at least 25 other times, always in reference to investigators looking into him or his campaign or his allies.
“Trump’s contemptuous criticism of law enforcement agencies who investigate him and his associates completely belie his claims of being a champion of law enforcement,” said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan. “He uses praise for aggressive policing on our streets as a political strategy to divide the electorate. Trump has shown us through his words and actions that he has nothing but disdain for the rule of law.”
Mr. Trump’s antipathy for law enforcement stems entirely from personal experience. He has been in the cross hairs of so many investigations over so many accusations over so many years that he has adopted the resentment and persecution complex of a serial defendant. He explains away all of the scrutiny as the nefarious plotting of unscrupulous authorities, whether it be the F.B.I., various federal prosecutors, the New York attorney general, the New York local prosecutor or others.
He has complained of people close to him being set up and or pressured by law enforcement. He focused intensely on due process violations like the warrants obtained by the F.B.I. to surveil his onetime campaign adviser Carter Page that were later found to be deeply flawed. As applied to his friends, Mr. Trump has objected even to common law enforcement practices that violated no standard operating procedure.
When, for example, federal agents armed with a warrant approved by a judge searched the files of Michael D. Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer, the president asserted that “they broke into the office,” as if the authorities were the ones committing a crime. When his friend Roger J. Stone Jr. was arrested in a pre-dawn raid carried out by more than two dozen police officers, Mr. Trump complained that “Border Coyotes, Drug Dealers and Human Traffickers are treated better.” When Paul Manafort, his onetime campaign chairman, was convicted, Mr. Trump praised him because “he refused to ‘break’” by cooperating with prosecutors.
Indeed, Mr. Trump has regularly complained about prosecutors trying to turn witnesses against more significant targets by offering them plea agreements, adopting the language of criminal defendants or their lawyers. “I have had many friends involved in this stuff,” Mr. Trump said in 2018. “It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal.” In other words, it should be illegal to be pressed to flip against him.
But Mr. Trump rarely expresses concern when aggressive police tactics are applied against everyday Americans, particularly those without connections or resources. He has remained a wholehearted supporter of the “stop and frisk” policy once employed by New York police officers disproportionately against young Hispanic and African-American men until it was halted and eventually repudiated even by its main champion, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
And in public, at least, he has dwelled little on the shocking police brutality that played out on the video of Mr. Floyd’s death that has been witnessed by millions of people and sent many of them into the streets of cities around the world in protest. At an event with law enforcement officials on Thursday in Dallas, he dismissed an instance of brutality as the work of a very few “bad apples” and made clear that the bigger threat in his mind was from the protesters to the police.
While Mr. Trump has repeatedly urged that former F.B.I. officials who investigated him — like James B. Comey, Andrew G. McCabe and Peter Strzok — be prosecuted themselves, he has resisted proposals that would make it easier to prosecute police officers who brutalize African-Americans or other citizens. “That would result in police pulling back,” Kayleigh McEnany, his spokeswoman, said this week, “so that is one thing that is a nonstarter.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders said there was no comparison between hard-working police officers out on the streets and what they have branded a corrupt cabal of senior law enforcement officials like Mr. Strzok, the former F.B.I. official who was involved in the investigation of Mr. Trump’s campaign even as he privately expressed anti-Trump sentiments in texts to a colleague. The president’s support for the former, they said, was not belied by his criticism of the latter.
“That’s really simplistic,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and federal prosecutor who has served as a personal attorney for the president. “Those are two totally different areas of law enforcement. One is field level. The other is upper level politicized law enforcement guys like Strzok who use it to further their careers through politics or believe they are helping their chosen party and candidates.”
Since he became president, though, Mr. Trump has refused to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone caught up in the criminal justice system other than him, his associates, his former appointees or individuals brought to his attention by his family or friends. When Mr. Stone was convicted of lying to Congress, Mr. Trump attacked the prosecutors, the judge and even the jury forewoman.
The president denounced the case against Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. Under public pressure from Mr. Trump, the Justice Department dropped the case against Mr. Flynn even though he pleaded guilty, arguing not that he did not lie but that it did not matter legally that he lied. A former judge argued this week that the department’s decision to clear Mr. Flynn was a “gross abuse of prosecutorial power” for political reasons.
By contrast, Mr. Trump has never backed off his attacks on the so-called Central Park Five, a group of Hispanic and African-American men who were exonerated in a high-profile rape case in New York after an investigation revealed that their confessions were coerced. New York paid a settlement to the five, but Mr. Trump remains undeterred and has refused to apologize for his attacks on them or his calls to put them to death. “You have people on both sides of that,” he said last year. In fact, he is mostly alone on the other side of that case.
“His stances on criminal justice matters are all over the place,” said Michael R. Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general. “He is strongly ‘law and order’ when it comes to street-level crime, in part because he finds it vaguely threatening and in part because it is an element of his marriage of convenience with conservative police unions.”
“But he is entirely forgiving of white-collar crime,” Mr. Bromwich added, “especially when it affects wealthy, privileged people like himself, his friends and colleagues, or people who committed crimes to advance his political interests.”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.