At a raucous campaign rally in western Pennsylvania last weekend, President Trump did what his supporters love and he went off script. But instead of inciting his followers with the usual chants of "Lock her up," he surprised many when he advocated going way beyond prison – he called for executing drug dealers.
"The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness," Trump told the crowd. "When I was in China and other places, by the way, I said, Mr. President, do you have a drug problem? 'No, no, no, we do not.' I said, Huh. Big country, 1.4 billion people, right. Not much of a drug problem. I said what do you attribute that to? 'Well, the death penalty.'"
That caught many people off guard. Many lawmakers don't understand why the president of the United States is taking passages from the likes of China, the Philippines and Singapore, which are all known for their swift, unforgiving and harsh penalties for relatively innocuous crimes, like drug use. Lawmakers say his fixation on forceful imagery completely misses the actual drug problem plaguing the nation.
When asked about Trump's comments, some lawmakers brushed aside the president's focus on the death penalty as mere campaign rhetoric, but many others were terrified at the underpinnings of his thinking. He's reported to have been briefed on the extreme policies used in China and the Philippines, and now lawmakers fear he wants to amass the same power and actually execute drug dealers.
"He's calling for executing the drug dealers?" a stunned Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) said in disbelief when asked about Trump's latest proposal. "That's outrageous. I don't know what else to say. But it's on a long list of things that are outrageous. My biggest fear is that we become numb."
"I think he really believes that he's above [the law]," Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) tells Rolling Stone. "Capital punishment is the most extreme of all, and for him to cavalierly throw it around in the manner that he does is very dangerous. It's dangerous for our system, and it creates another foil for him."
Former prosecutors in Congress are aghast at the thought of proposing capital punishment for dealing drugs. They say reports that Trump has been influenced in meetings with officials from China and Singapore shows he's talking to the wrong people.
"I think he should start by meeting with some prosecutors here in this country," Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) tells Rolling Stone. "I don't think he's very familiar with the criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty."
As the first female prosecutor for Jackson County, which has jurisdiction over Kansas City, McCaskill says she launched drug courts as a compassionate way to ease addicts away from substances and back into society. Unlike many in her party, she supports the death penalty, but only in "very limited applications."
"It has to be both the quality and the quantity of the evidence, and there has to be an element to it that is so beyond acceptable," she adds. She says instead of trying to scare drug dealers with his tough-on-crime tactics, Trump should focus on stopping the flow of drugs into the U.S., which she says needs to include providing better technology and more inspectors for the Post Office, along with the nation's ports.
"They're not in any of his requests. He's not requested one additional person for the ports, and that's where the Fentanyl is coming in," she says. "We should be focusing on how we stop this black market Fentanyl from getting into our country. There are a lot of things we can do around Fentanyl, but the death penalty is not going to be a fix for that. Just like the death penalty was not a fix for homicides."
Still, the not everyone on Capitol Hill is so taken aback by Trump's latest pronouncement.
"I think that if a drug dealer is coming into the country and they're giving dangerous drugs to minors, for example, I don't feel bad about that," Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) tells Rolling Stone. "They can go to hell as far as I'm concerned."
After his initial comments, however, Rohrabacher clarified that this wasn't his first choice for drug policy. He has, after all, been one of the most outspoken conservative advocates for loosening the nation's prohibition on marijuana, and he says there are better options than capital punishment.
"I would hope however that we would try to focus more on treatment than we do on the murder of drug salesman who are peddling hard drugs," Rohrabacher says.
The California Republican bemoans that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are trying to return the nation back to the Just-Say-No decades of the Eighties and Nineties. He says it's time federal officials rethink the perpetual war on drugs that President Richard Nixon is credited with formally launching in the Seventies.
"The war on drugs has been totally unsuccessful," Rohrabacher says. "What we should be trying to do is refocus those efforts on people who are addicted to hard drugs to help them and try to give them an avenue out, rather than simply trying to beef up the police force and buy more guns and battering rams."
But the president seems to think guns, battering rams and the gallows are the answer. And as the opioid crisis continues to claim tens of thousands of American lives each year, lawmakers in both parties fear the president and his administration are now fixated on the wrong policy, even as other potential solutions are right in front of him.
"President Trump has long admired dictators and strongmen, so it shouldn't surprise us that he espouses the rhetoric of somebody like the Philippine dictator [Rodrigo] Duterte," Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) tells Rolling Stone. "I wish that he had the same tenacity in attacking the practices of multi-national pharmaceutical companies that have pushed prescription opioids, which have led to the vast majority of abuse cases."