Email #334: “laughingstock”?

President Trump tweeted last Wednesday:

“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

But the President also said to reporters:

“Send him to Gitmo. I would certainly consider that.”

Although Press Secretary Sanders referred to Sayfullo Saipov as an “enemy combatant,” the legal term used to describe Guantanamo prisoners, the President tweeted on Thursday:

“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system . . . There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”

Ironically, defense lawyers may now be able to use the tweet to move the case to a different jurisdiction and to avoid the death penalty if jurors are prejudiced by the President’s widely publicized comments. Andrew McCarthy explained in the National Review on Saturday:

“The Justice Department has an exacting process before the death penalty may be charged. The process is meant to impress on the judiciary — much of which is philosophically predisposed against capital punishment — that the attorney general seeks the death sentence only after extremely careful deliberation, which includes hearing a presentation from the defense. Now, since the attorney general answers to the president, Saipov’s lawyers will argue that the DOJ process is, shall we say, a joke and a laughingstock, the president having already ordered his subordinate to seek the defendant’s execution.”

Although the Justice Department does not treat the President’s tweets as official statements, they appear to have affected prosecutors too. Government lawyers submitted a criminal complaint against Saipov on Wednesday after the Justice Department’s national security officials approved the complaint, but then those officials tried to rescind their approval but could not because the complaint had already been submitted to the court. As chair of the House Judiciary Committee whose primary responsibility is oversight of the Justice Department, will you be writing to Attorney General Sessions to request an explanation for the attempted change and the circumstances that caused it?

As McCarthy alluded, the President also said last Wednesday:

“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 laughingstock.”

Do you agree with that assessment? Press Secretary Sanders claimed afterwards:

“That’s not what he said. He said that process has people calling us a joke and a laughingstock.”

This is not true. Sanders altered the President’s statement. The only person calling us a joke and a laughingstock is the President himself.

This is also not the first time White House staff has altered the President’s words. On October 13, he said: “I went to Puerto Rico and I met with the President of the Virgin Islands… The Virgin Islands and the President of the Virgin Islands, these are people that are incredible people.” President Trump had met with Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp, and official White House transcripts changed the references to “the President of the Virgin Islands” to “the governor of the Virgin Islands.”

While I understand the wish to erase an embarrassing gaffe that makes the President look like a joke and a laughingstock, altering official statements is concerning. Although former Press Secretary Spicer said in June that the President’s tweets “are considered official statements by the President of the United States,” the Justice Department has argued in court that the President’s comments “may not accurately reflect the government’s position.” Based on revisions of the President’s words, it is unclear which of his statements even the White House accepts as official and reflecting government positions.

Since you oversee the Justice Department, could you please offer your own assessment of the U.S. justice system? Do you also consider it a “joke” and a “laughingstock”? If not, do you object to the President’s statement—or do you agree with his Press Secretary that he never said what he said? You wrote in August:

“Like the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984, when the government removes facts and history from the past, citizens of today and the future cannot learn the vital lessons they would have otherwise imparted.”

Do you still stand by those words, or will they be revised too?

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Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University where he teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017).

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