Opinion

Opinion: It’s Huge — Few Presidents Have Praised Authoritarians as Much as Trump

But administration has little to say about police shootings

President Donald Trump may be trying to make a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while the Russian leader looks the other way when atrocities are committed by his allies in Syria — and when political opponents, journalists and whistle-blowers suffer suspicious deaths in his own country, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

So what does a criminal look like, exactly? On the campaign trail, Donald Trump featured the moving stories of the grieving relatives of those who had been killed by criminals who were in the U.S. illegally. In a promise kept, the Department of Homeland Security has introduced the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, or VOICE, housed within Immigration and Customs Enforcement. DHS Secretary John Kelly said: “They are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place — because the people who victimized them often times should never have been in the country.”

While Kelly assured this effort will aid victims of crime who also are undocumented, it comes as ICE has shifted its priorities when picking up the undocumented for deportation, sometimes going to courthouses and hospitals while immigrant activists protest that this prevents those in need from seeking help.

When the president mentioned his plan to create VOICE in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this year, some of those listening booed. As the agency has become fact, the loudest voices in protest are immigrant rights group, who, while sympathetic, as anyone with a heart would be, to the families of victims of any crime, resist the demonization of one particular group.

They point out the danger when you identify crime by the immigration status (or race or gender or age or profession) of the alleged perpetrator. It tends to promote stereotypes about that group — reinforcing the Trump view of Mexican “rapists,” for example — and it lets crimes by those who don’t fit the profile fall off the radar, making those victims disappear, as well. In this case, undocumented immigrants, according to data, commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans, though that hardly lessens the horror of any particular crime.

The bigger the crime ...

This is happening while members of a whole other category of criminal, committing offenses on a broad scale, may be making their way to the White House, in person or in spirit.

President Donald Trump is talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin, trying to make a deal — maybe — while the Russian leader looks the other way not only on atrocities by his allies in Syria but also on the suspicious deaths of political opponents, journalists and whistle-blowers in his own country. While the Trump-Putin connection is not as strong as it once was, particularly as numerous congressional committees and the FBI investigate Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, the two presidents’ phone chat this week was promising, according to a White House statement. Trump has long avoided any personal criticism of Putin.

News also comes that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, endorser of extra-judicial killings by police and vigilantes of suspected drug dealers in his country, was invited to the White House in a call between the two leaders described in a statement as “very friendly.”

Trump has played armchair psychologist with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, sympathizing with him in his brutal rise to power and calling him a “smart cookie” he’d be honored to meet. Arizona Sen. John McCain called those comments “very disturbing.” Then there was the congratulatory calls to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan on winning a controversial referendum consolidating his power, and Trump’s praise of the “fantastic job” Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is doing.

In the name of diplomacy, all American presidents and officials have dealt with strong men and despots. It is one way to urge human rights reforms and deals to benefit the U.S., cajole erratic leaders with charm, and build trust with questionable characters in order to fight a common foe — from terrorists to missile threats.

Let’s make a deal?

President Trump ran on his ability to make deals, and these comments could be strategic — though business entanglements as well as a lack of consistency raise questions. But few American leaders have offered such effusive praise and understanding toward authoritarians. If only Democrats and errant Republicans got such benefit of the doubt from the president, imagine the deals that could be made.

All the while this domestic crime fighting and international glad-handing is under way, there are other crimes and criminals about which administration leaders fall strangely silent.

As this week’s news that the shooting of unarmed, African-American, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards by a Texas police officer is under investigation, and that the former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, who shot the fleeing Walter Scott in the back, is pleading guilty to a federal civil rights violation (we’ll see what sentence his federal plea earns him), one wonders if the Department of Homeland Security or the Justice Department would establish a category of crimes committed by law enforcement officers who fail to realize a video would later contradict their account.

A condolence call or statement might be appropriate for these families whose losses do not fit the narrative of police under siege or the policies of a Justice Department led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who favors dropping support for consent decrees that seek to improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they cover. These victimized families often have only a family lawyer to speak to their pain.

So what does a criminal look like, exactly?

It’s a fair question when the message from American leaders is that some crimes, criminals and victims count, and others barely register.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. 

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