White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday dodged questions about the disconnect between President Trump’s attitude toward the Central Park Five and his comments about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused by several women of sexual assault or misconduct.
Trump has repeatedly claimed Kavanaugh is a good man and believes the women who have accused him of assault are either lying or not credible.
“President Trump talked a lot yesterday about this issue of being concerned about men being being thought of guilty before being proven innocent and this idea of due process, but in the past with the Central Park Five, he put out an ad calling for the death penalty before they had been found convicted. And after they were exonerated he still basically said that they may be guilty,” NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe said during a press briefing. “[…] Is there a disconnect between when the president is interested in due process for some and not others?”
Sanders responded by dancing around Rascoe’s question.
“Not at all,” she said, before citing one of Kavanaugh’s accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who claims Kavanaugh tried to rape her when the two were teenagers.
“The president actually encouraged the Senate to hear Dr. Ford’s testimony in the same way that he encouraged them to hear Judge Kavanaugh’s,” she said. “He is simply stating the fact that we are a country of law and order, we are a country of that still believes that you are innocent until proven guilty, and we want to see that process go through in its entirety on a fair playing field.”
Sanders then quickly tried to move on to a new question before another reporter, American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan, followed up, pressing her on the issue. “[The president] said the Central Park Five was guilty. Does he feel that now?” she asked. “…Has he decided to change his mind on the Central Park Five? Because they have been exonerated.”
Sanders said she would have to “look back,” before changing subjects again.
Sanders’ comments come one day after Trump told reporters it was a “scary time for young men,” who he claimed could be falsely accused of rape by anyone, and following a rally in Mississippi, where he mocked Ford and implied her memories of her assault were faulty.
The White House’s refusal to directly address Trump’s stance on the Central Park Five is particularly troubling. In the spring of 1989, Trump, then a real estate magnate, took out full page advertisements in all four of New York City’s major newspapers calling for the death penalty for five Black and Latino young men accused of raping a jogger in Central Park.
“Muggers and murderers should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” the ad read. “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer… How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
The ad finished with the phrase, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY AND BRING BACK OUR POLICE” in capital letters.
Years later, the five boys originally accused of the rape were exonerated with DNA evidence, and the city settled with the defendants. Trump didn’t care.
“Settling doesn’t mean innocence,” he said in 2014. “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
Trump continued pushing that line well into his 2016 presidential campaign.
“They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous,” he told CNN in an interview that October.
Now, the president appears to be singing a very different tune. In the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct against his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Kavanaugh, Trump has repeatedly talked about the value of believing someone is innocent until they are proven guilty.
“I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of,” he said Tuesday.
He added, “My whole life, I’ve heard you’re innocent until proven guilty. But now you’re guilty until proven innocent. That is a very, very difficult standard.”