On Saturday evening around 8:30, a blast detonated in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, injuring 29 people. An hour later, at a rally in a Colorado Springs airplane hangar, Donald Trump told the crowd, “Just before I got off the plane, a bomb went off in New York and nobody knows exactly what’s going on, but, boy, we are living in a time. We better get very tough, folks.”
At the time, authorities in New York were not calling the explosion a bomb. They would later, of course. And when they did, Trump took credit for calling it correctly. “What I said was exactly correct – I should be a newscaster because I called it before the news,” he cracked Monday morning on Fox and Friends, before embarking on a meandering, vague argument in favor of racial profiling.
“Our local police, they know who a lot of these people are,” Trump said, referring to suspected terrorists like Ahmad Khan Rahami, accused in Saturday’s bombing and other failed attacks in New York and New Jersey.
“They are afraid to do anything about it because they don’t want to be accused of profiling, and they don’t want to be accused of all sorts of things,” Trump said, adding, “You know, in Israel, they profile. They have done an unbelievable job, as good as you can do …. They see somebody that’s suspicious, they will profile. They will take that person in and check [him or her] out.
“Do we have a choice? Look what’s going on,” Trump continued. “We’re trying to be so politically correct in our country and this is only going to get worse. This isn’t going to get better. And I’ve been talking to you guys for years and I’ve been saying it …. This is only going to get worse. And what I said is you have to stop them from coming into the country.”
Trump’s reaction to the Manhattan bombing fits a pattern that he has settled into over the last several months: A terrorist will strike, and before waiting for the details, he’ll jump to conclusions. And he’ll often be right, not because he’s particularly insightful, but because what appeared to have happened did, in fact, happen. Then he’ll call for instituting, as a matter of policy, jumping to conclusions about a person on the basis of their religion or country of origin.
It’s a troubling pattern for someone running to be president, especially of a country with a growing non-white population – and yet Trump is winning over voters with exactly this “non-PC” attitude.
Take the San Bernardino shooting: Trump called it a terrorist attack long before the authorities investigating the shooting did. “It looks like another case. We’ve got a lot of bad things going on. Radical Islamic terrorism …. I mean, you look at the names, you look at what’s happened. You tell me,” Trump said. “I think it was terrorism.”
He humble-bragged about his omniscience in the wake of the Orlando attack. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” he tweeted after predicting the shooter was a terrorist.
Trump is a low-information operator. He doesn’t like details. Read a transcript of his spoken remarks, and you’ll notice he leaves sentences unfinished, leaning heavily on casual suggestions that telegraph a sentiment sans specifics. (Think: “Second Amendment people.”)
It’s easier to be rhetorically sloppy than precise – a principle that seems to underlie all of Trump’s decisions. Likewise, it’s easier to guess rather than wait for evidence to be collected and pored over, to make vague promises rather than outline specific and detailed policy proposals, and to assume what kind of person someone is based on how they look or where they come from.
But there is a reason why people – elected officials in particular – wait for confirmation and for details after incidents like the one that occurred in New York this weekend: Early reports are often inaccurate, and spreading misinformation can have devastating consequences.
And Donald Trump should know this from experience. In 1989, after 28-year-old Trisha Meili was brutally attacked while jogging in Central Park, Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers that bears striking similarities to the case he made Monday morning on Fox and Friends: our safety is being jeopardized by being politically correct.
“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” the ad screamed in a font that took up half the page. “Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
“Let our politicians give back our police department’s power to keep us safe. Unshackle them from the constant chant of ‘police brutality’ which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another’s. We must cease our continuous pandering so the criminal population of this City. Give New York back to the citizens who have earned the right to be New Yorkers. Send a message loud and clear to those who would murder our citizens and terrorize New York.”
The criminals whose death he was calling for were five teenagers (four black, one Hispanic) between the ages of 14 and 16 accused of attacking Meili. They were arrested, coerced into signing false confessions, convicted and sent to prison. Then in 2002, another convicted rapist serving a life sentence in jail admitted to committing the rape alone; DNA evidence confirmed the man’s guilt.
The so-called Central Park Five sued the City of New York for racial discrimination, among other things; they settled the case in 2014 for $41 million. In an interview with The Guardian this year, Yusef Salaam, one of the teenagers convicted, recalled the impact Trump’s letter had at the time it was published, less than two weeks after the attack.
“I knew that this famous person calling for us to die was very serious,” Salaam said. “We were all afraid. Our families were afraid. Our loved ones were afraid. For us to walk around as if we had a target on our backs, that’s how things were.” He said the number of death threats his family received increased precipitously after Trump’s ad ran.
“Had this been the 1950s, that sick type of justice that they wanted – somebody from that darker place of society would have most certainly came to our homes, dragged us from our beds and hung us from trees in Central Park,” as Pat Buchanan at the time suggested they should be, Salaam added.
Trump loves to take credit for being right, and his handling of the Central Park Five case shows he can’t admit fault when he’s wrong. After all five convictions were vacated and the settlement was finally reached, Trump surveyed the damage he’s helped wrought and, in an op-ed for the New York Daily News, pointed blame at everyone else. “The justice system has a lot to answer for, as does the City of New York regarding this very mishandled disaster. Information was being leaked to newspapers by someone on the case from the beginning, and the blunders were frequent and obvious.” Even the teenagers, who spent between six and 11 years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit were at fault: They did not, after all, “exactly have the pasts of angels,” Trump wrote.
In an interview shortly after the settlement was announced while he was still mulling his candidacy, Trump said he believed his brash, shoot-from-the-hip style would prove an advantage. “I think it will help me,” he told his biographer, Michael D’Antonio. “I think people are tired of politically correct. I just attacked the Central Park Five settlement. Who’s going to do that?”