Donald Trump released a video on Friday debuting a new line of attack against Hillary Clinton, hitting her for her tough-on-crime past.
The attack, posted on Instagram, is a response to Clinton’s speech yesterday in which she called the Republican nominee a bigot and discussed his connections to white supremacists.
In the video, Trump, the candidate who has railed against rising crime rates and who has shaped his campaign around a promise to bring back law and order, says that Bill and Hillary Clinton “are the real predators” for their support of harsh crime laws during the 1990s.
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The video revives criticism Clinton faced during the Democratic primary, hitting her for calling black kids “superpredators” in 1996 and for saying that “we have to bring them to heel.” It also connects her to her husband’s controversial 1994 crime bill, pointing to an MSNBC headline reading: “Bill Clinton admits his crime law made mass incarceration ‘worse.’”
In the two decades since the bill’s passage, public perception of crime has changed dramatically. Both Democrats and many Republicans have recognized the failures of tough-on crime policies. Soaring incarceration rates were exacerbated by Clinton’s legislation, which included stricter sentencing requirements and unnecessary mandatory minimums. During her campaign this year, Clinton has been forced to both reconcile her support for that legislation and to apologize for her superpredators comment.
Nonetheless, Trump is not ready to let her off the hook, and Friday’s video signals his willingness to reignite the controversy. But this might be one controversy that he should avoid, given that while Clinton was pushing for tough-on-crime policies, Trump was doing the same. In fact, he said at the time that his vision of the criminal system was more about revenge than justice.
Trump’s views on crime during the 1990s can be summarized by a quote in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, in which he wrote about how his mother was mugged in 1991 while walking through Queens.
He explained that his family attended the trial to ensure that the assailant received the maximum possible punishment for the crime.
“The Trumps believe in getting even,” he wrote.
A few years earlier in 1989, Trump — then a powerful real estate mogul — developed an interest in the case of the Central Park Five. Five black and Latino teenagers, all under the age of 16, were accused of raping and brutally beating a female jogger in Central Park, and the crime was causing panic across New York City.
During the trial, Trump paid more than $85,000 for a full-page ad to run in four newspapers demanding “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
“They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” he wrote. “I want to hate these murderers and I always will … I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to be afraid.”
Despite weak evidence and alleged forced confessions by police, all five men were convicted and received sentences ranging from five to 15 years.
But when Trump was calling for their execution, he did not consider the fact that they may have been innocent.
Twelve years later, a serial rapist admitted to the crime and proved to be a DNA match, and all five of the the men’s convictions were vacated. In 2014, the city of New York agreed to pay $40 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit over their arrest and imprisonment.
Trump called the settlement a “disgrace” in an op-ed, claiming that “settling doesn’t mean innocence” and maintaining that “these young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.” He has not mentioned the case during his presidential campaign, and has never apologized for calling for the execution of innocent men.
“He was the fire starter,” Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, told the Guardian in February about Trump. “Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty.”
Salaam did not know who Trump was at the time of the crime, but recognized that his influence on the case was profound.
“I knew that this famous person calling for us to die was very serious,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the only time that Trump used his money and influence to stoke fears about crime. In 2000, a group of Native Americans were planning to open a rival casino in an upstate New York town where Trump also ran a casino. In an effort to sabotage the plans, Trump paid for an anonymous ad in a local newspaper. Under a picture of needles and drug paraphernalia, the ad questioned whether the Native Americans are the neighbors the town wants. “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented,” he wrote.
When he launched his campaign last June, Trump relied on similar rhetoric, claiming that undocumented immigrants are rapists and murderers, bringing crime to American cities.
Even after securing the nomination, he’s continued to cite false crime statistics and has focused on “black on black” crime in inner cities.
Yet he still thinks that black Americans should be attracted to his message. “What do you have to lose by trying something new?” he asked last week during an appeal to black voters.
“If African-Americans give Donald Trump a chance by giving me their vote, the result for them will be amazing.”