For two years now, Donald Trump has played up his own toughness and fostered a false narrative about a new violent crime wave sweeping the nation. Only he can fix it, he told voters throughout the election that made him president.
Although nine separate women have accused Moore of sexually abusing or assaulting them in their teenage years, Trump said the Republican nominee’s denials of the accusations should be good enough for voters. The comments follow White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s acknowledgment that votes on Trump’s tax giveaway to the wealthy are more important to her than the morality of Moore’s alleged conduct.
Even though people in Moore’s hometown say his habit of pursuing sexual relationships with minors was so well known that he was banned from a local shopping mall, Trump on Tuesday depicted him as the preferable candidate in the race. The main reason, Trump said, is that Democrat Doug Jones is “soft on crime.”
Jones made his political name by successfully prosecuting the men who executed the notorious firebombing of a Birmingham church during the Civil Rights Movement, killing several black children. He served as a federal prosecutor for a total of eight years in two different stints, first as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama in the early 1980s and again as interim U.S. Attorney there in the late 1990s.
The Birmingham bombing case is Jones’ signature achievement as a prosecutor. Three decades on from the attack that killed four black girls under the age of 15, Jones led the team that convicted two Klansmen who built and planted the bomb. One died in prison in 2004. The other was denied parole in 2016 after a hearing where Jones and others spoke against his early release.
Jones is well regarded enough by his fellow professional prosecutors that he was set to take over as president of the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys last year, until deciding to run for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Trump’s depiction of Jones as soft on crime makes little sense, then, at a glance. Widen your view, though, and it’s easy to see what playbook he’s running from here. With Moore staying in the race despite the avalanche of evidence he targeted minors with a pattern of sexually predatory behavior for years, Trump’s far-right white-grievance machine has cranked up the pace. Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com has repeatedly slammed Jones for opposing Trump’s border wall and described his immigration policy views as “Mexico First.”
But beyond the rank ethno-nationalism of the Bannon-Trump movement, the president’s own comment reveals which crimes Trump views as serious, and which victims he views as worthy of celebration and mourning.
One of the White House’s signature policy changes is the creation of a new specialized office to collect and amplify reports of crimes committed by people suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
The nationalist right has boosted anecdotes about immigrant criminality for decades, trusting that visceral individual stories could overwhelm the statistics that show immigrants are far less prone to crime than people born in the United States. Now, that campaign has a foothold inside the federal bureaucracy. Trump’s new crime victims reporting office is already being turned into a frightening witch-hunt agency where neighbors report their suspicions that the Latinx family down the street might not have full legal resident status in hopes of inspiring an immigration raid.
Trump’s focus is squarely on white victims. It always has been, going back to his splashy advocacy for killing the “Central Park 5,” a group of young black men falsely convicted of rape and murder in New York in the 1990s. Even after the quintet were exonerated and the real killer convicted, Trump continued to insist the five should have been put to death.
That helps explain why Trump might not care very much for the prosecutor who jailed murderous Ku Klux Klan members. But his embrace of Moore spotlights another tendency of Trump’s selective outrage about crime.
A long list of women have accused Moore of sexually abusing or assaulting them when they were teens and he was well into his 30s. An even longer list of sources have corroborated those accusations in various ways. The community that reared Moore was broadly aware of his behavior toward young girls and kept it as an open secret. While Moore’s campaign has disputed the mall-ban story and denied all assault allegations, the candidate himself gave a qualified answer and suggested he only ever dated a teenager if he had permission from her mother.
Later in life, as a Supreme Court justice in Alabama, Moore sought to change the state’s criminal law book in ways that could have protected people who engage in the very same predatory pattern he is accused of today.
Trump’s political choice in Alabama is a simple one, then.
One candidate put racist murderers of children behind bars where they can do no further harm to the outside world. The second allegedly spent decades chasing children for sexual contact so flagrantly that he got banned from a shopping mall, then used his public power in the judiciary to try and loosen up laws about child sexual predation.
The president would prefer you vote for the second man.