President Trump stuck a blow against criminal justice when he backed, and thereby caused to be enacted, a “criminal justice reform” bill mandating the early release of many thousands of federal felons (including violent felons), plus shorter sentences for future federal felons. Given sky-high recidivism rates, the measure is certain to generate significantly more crime than would otherwise have been committed.
Trump’s decision to back legislation that makes Americans less safe went against his grain, as manifested by his past tough on crime rhetoric. I believe he did it to pander to African-American celebrities (Kanye West, in particular) in the hope of gaining African-American support.
Now, the same motive has caused Trump to intervene in Sweden’s criminal justice system on behalf of an African-American rapper called A$AP Rocky. The rapper and two members of his entourage were arrested and jailed for beating up Mustafa Jafari in Stockholm. Jafari, 19 years old, is an Afghan refugee with a criminal record that includes an assault conviction.
Jafari claims that Rocky and his two cronies attacked him, and that Rocky hit him over the head with a bottle. Rocky says it was self-defense — that Jafari was following and harassing him, and that Rocky feared for his safety. He also denies hitting Jafari with a bottle.
(Video shows Rocky’s body guard instructing Jafari not to walk in the same direction as Rocky, and Jafari not complying. The video does not show anyone hitting Jafari with a bottle, but a broken bottle was found at the scene of the fight).
Given the numbers and comparative size of the individuals involved, it’s not clear why Rocky would have thought he was in physical danger from Jafari. Nonetheless, the rapper might have a sound, or at least a plausible, self-defense claim. Whether he does is a matter for the Swedish justice system to determine.
As I understand it, Sweden does not have a bail system, on the theory that people with money should not have an advantage in its criminal justice system. Thus, Rocky and the two others (who would be classic examples of defendants able to take advantage of wealth possibly to escape the justice system) were being held, pending trial and a verdict.
That’s where things stood when President Trump, prompted by requests from Kanye West, West’s celebrity wife, and few other celebs, became involved. First, Trump asked Sweden’s prime minister to release the rapper. When that didn’t work, he had the State Department’s hostage affairs negotiator fly to Sweden to see what he could do.
But Rocky and his crew weren’t hostages. Sweden wasn’t demanding anything in exchange for their release. Using a hostage negotiator in a case like this is apparently unprecedented and, in my view, rather absurd.
Rocky and his crew are criminal defendants. Moreover, they are defendants in a country with a well-respected system of justice. Sweden isn’t North Korea, Libya, or Iran. There was no reason to believe that Rocky and company would be railroaded.
The defendants got their trial. A verdict is due on August 14.
Our hostage negotiator attended the trial. At its conclusion, Sweden agreed to release the defendants from custody. As I understand it, they are free to leave the country and have done so. The odds of them returning in the event of a conviction seem slight.
If the defendants are acquitted, Trump’s intervention will have bought them two weeks of freedom (assuming his intervention was decisive in the early release). If the defendants are convicted and sentenced to prison time, and don’t return, Trump’s intervention will have bought the U.S. a scandal. (I hope the evidence was insufficient to persuade the court that Rocky hit Jafari with a bottle, in which case the sentence, if any, might not carry jail time. I hope this, not American intervention, is behind Rocky’s release).
On the merits, Trump’s intervention is indefensible in my view. If a Swedish “death metal” star were arrested for assault in the U.S., most Americans would find it outrageous for Sweden to exert influence over the outcome of the judicial process and/or to send a hostage negotiator here. Swedes are entitled to feel outraged that Trump has done so in Rocky’s case.
I understand why Trump did it, and can almost sympathize. Democrats and their partners at media outlets like CNN and the Washington Post are determined unfairly to depict Trump as a racist. They hope to maintain the Party’s massive edge with African-American voters and to reinforce anti-Trump sentiment among whites, especially young ones and suburban women.
Helping a rapper and pandering to Kanye West won’t help Trump with the latter cohorts, but it might well help him with African-Americans. Maybe violating an international norm here or there is worth it to counteract the consequences of unfair, partisan-based charges of racism.
But jeopardizing U.S. relations with our allies is too high a price to pay, in my opinion. Sweden justifiably resents Trump treating it the way a normal president might treat North Korea, Libya, or Iran. Other European allies surely have taken note, as well.
These are our partners in countering Russia and China, among other foreign policy goals. Kanye West shouldn’t be able to induce the president to alienate our partners. The president shouldn’t be amenable to the inducement.
Trump’s involvement in helping the rapper also produced the inevitable gratuitous nastiness for which our president is famous. In a tweet, Trump ludicrously complained that “Sweden has let our African-American community down in the United States,” as if Swedish enforcement of its criminal laws can legitimately be viewed as an affront to African-Americans. In another tweet, he admonished Sweden to focus on its “real crime problem,” an apparent reference to crime committed by its immigrant population.
This is truly the pot calling the kettle black. Like America, Sweden does have a problem with crime committed by immigrants, including Jafari himself. Even so, the Swedish crime rate is considerably lower than that of the U.S.
President Trump should focus on America’s “real crime problem” — one he has exacerbated by enabling the passage of jail break legislation.
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