Well before Donald Trump embarked on his career as a politician, he viewed the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an emblem of tough treatment of criminals. Americans who traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State should be sent to the prison “for some R&R,” he tweeted multiple times in 2014. On the campaign trail last year, he used the prison as an applause line.
“And Gitmo? We’re not closing Gitmo,” he said in Westfield, Ind., in July 2016, using a shortened version of the prison’s name. “We’re going to fill it up! We’re not closing Gitmo.”
In part, this rhetoric was meant to contrast his own toughness with the perceived weakness of President Barack Obama, who’d sought to close the prison. Obama “lectured CIA officers of the need to acknowledge their mistakes, and described Guantanamo Bay as a ‘rallying cry for our enemies,’ ” Trump said in a speech about terrorism in Youngstown, Ohio, in August 2016. That the prison was, in fact, included in al-Qaeda propaganda — something that even Trump favorite David H. Petraeus argued — was not important. What was important was that the prison was considered tough.
On Wednesday, Trump was asked by the White House press pool whether Guantanamo Bay might be an option for Sayfullo Saipov, the alleged perpetrator of a truck attack in New York City on Tuesday.
“I would certainly consider that, yes,” Trump replied. “Send him to Gitmo.”
Later, before a meeting with his Cabinet, Trump expanded on his thoughts about the proper punishment that Saipov should face.
“We have to get much tougher. We have to get much smarter. And we have to get much less politically correct,” Trump said. He later continued: “We also have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They’ll go through court for years. And at the end, they’ll be — who knows what happens. We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock.”
Calls for quick, harsh punishment have been a consistent part of Trump’s rhetoric since well before he became a political candidate. Most famously, he purchased a full-page ad in the New York Daily News in 1989 calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty in the wake of a rape and brutal assault of a jogger in Central Park.
“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” it read. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
The police had, in fact, arrested five young men that they accused of committing the crime. Those five men were eventually exonerated after another person admitted to the crime and DNA evidence reinforced his guilt.
Were Saipov to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, he would be the first new arrival there since Muhammad Rahim al Afghani was sent there in June 2008. For the past 14 years, the trend has been toward moving criminals out of the prison.
One reason for that is that the prison has been slow to exact justice. A HuffPost investigation last year found that five men alleged to have conspired to commit the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still waiting for their trial to begin at Guantanamo Bay, while 15 men accused of terrorism and terror-related crimes were tried and convicted in state and federal courts. In one case — that of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — the death penalty had been handed down.
In 2013, former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. made reference to the slow pace of trials at Guantanamo Bay: The 9/11 conspirators “would be on death row as we speak,” he said, had they been tried in state or federal courts.
Trump himself has, in the past, discussed the slow pace of the trials at Guantanamo Bay. In May 2012, Trump appeared on the Fox News Channel program “Fox and Friends” to discuss a hearing the prior weekend marked by disruptions and disorder.
“What you’ve seen is gridlock, and it’s legal gridlock and it’s disgraceful,” Trump said of the hearing. “They ought to pass a law where terrorists go quickly. You know, in China, it takes 24 hours and then the bullet — and the family pays for the bullet.”
He later came back to the idea that the process was too slow.
“It’s the speed! I mean, you’re talking about years and years, just to learn when the trial is going to begin! The speed has to change,” he said. “It’s not working.”
That was then. Now, threatening a trip to Guantanamo Bay is a way for Trump to again imply that he’s doing something above and beyond what past presidents (usually meaning Obama) had done. Trump sees the normal judicial process as somehow coddling terrorism suspects. In lieu of the quick-bullet system used in China, he’ll settle for whatever the toughest-seeming response might be, even if it contradicts his claim that he wants to avoid having a trial “go through court for years.”
Underlying all of this, of course, is the example of the Central Park Five. One reason trials take time is that we like to ensure that the accused are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.