Trump Plans to Bring Back Firing Squads, Group Executions if He Retakes White House
“What do you think of firing squads?”
That’s the question Donald Trump repeatedly asked some close associates in the run-up to the 2024 presidential campaign, three people familiar with the situation tell Rolling Stone.
It’s not an idle inquiry: The former president, if re-elected, is still committed to expanding the use of the federal death penalty and bringing back banned methods of execution, the sources say. He has even, one of the sources recounts, mused about televising footage of executions, including showing condemned prisoners in the final moments of their lives.
Specifically, Trump has talked about bringing back death by firing squad, by hanging, and, according to two of the sources, possibly even by guillotine. He has also, sources say, discussed group executions. Trump has floated these ideas while discussing planned campaign rhetoric and policy desires, as well as his disdain for President Biden’s approach to crime.
In at least one instance late last year, according to the third source, who has direct knowledge of the matter, Trump privately mused about the possibility of creating a flashy, government-backed video-ad campaign that would accompany a federal revival of these execution methods. In Trump’s vision, these videos would include footage from these new executions, if not from the exact moments of death. “The [former] president believes this would help put the fear of God into violent criminals,” this source says. “He wanted to do some of these [things] when he was in office, but for whatever reasons didn’t have the chance.”
A Trump spokesman denies Trump had mused about a video-ad campaign. “More ridiculous and fake news from idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about,” the spokesman writes in an email. “Either these people are fabricating lies out of thin air, or Rolling Stone is allowing themselves to be duped by these morons.”
Trump’s enthusiasm for grisly video campaigns has been documented before, including in an anecdote from a former aide that had the then-president demanding footage of “people dying in a ditch” and “bodies stacked on top of bodies” so that his administration could “scare kids so much that they will never touch a single drug in their entire life.”
Asked about firing squads and other execution methods, the spokesman refers Rolling Stone to lines from Trump’s 2024 campaign announcement. “Every drug dealer during his or her life, on average, will kill 500 people with the drugs they sell, not to mention the destruction of families. We’re going to be asking everyone who sells drugs, gets caught selling drugs, to receive the death penalty for their pain.”
At an October rally — to cheers and applause from his audience — Trump pitched a form of supposed justice that has been embraced by some brutal dictatorships. “And if [the drug dealer is] guilty, they get executed, and they send the bullet to the family and they want the family to pay for the cost of the bullet,” Trump said at the rally. “If you want to stop the drug epidemic in this country, you better do that … [even if] it doesn’t sound nice.”
The former president’s zeal for the death penalty has already proven lethal. During the final months of his administration, he oversaw the executions of 13 federal prisoners. Since 1963, only three federal prisoners had been executed, including Oklahoma City bomber and mass murderer Timothy McVeigh. In January 2021, in the final stretch before Biden would become president, Trump oversaw three executions in four days.
“In conversations I’d been in the room for, President Trump would explicitly say that he’d love a country that was totally an ‘eye for an eye’ — that’s a direct quote — criminal-justice system, and he’d talk about how the ‘right’ way to do it is to line up criminals and drug dealers before a firing squad,” says a former Trump White House official.
“You just got to kill these people,” Trump would stress, this ex-official notes.
“He had a particular affinity for the firing squad, because it seemed more dramatic, rather than how we do it, putting a syringe in people and putting them to sleep,” the former White House official adds. “He was big on the idea of executing large numbers of drug dealers and drug lords because he’d say, ‘These people don’t care about anything,’ and that they run their drug empire and their deals from prison anyways, and then they get back out on the street, get all their money again, and keep committing crimes … and therefore, they need to be eradicated, not jailed.”
Trump’s firing-squad fixation may address his desire for the “dramatic,” but some experts believe that an instant death-by-gunshot may be more humane than lethal injection. “There’s pain, certainly, but it’s transient,” according to Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. “If you’re shot in the chest and your heart stops functioning, it’s just seconds until you lose consciousness.”
Rules made during Trump’s presidency made federal firing squads more feasible. Previously, lethal injection was the only permissible federal method of execution. But under the administration’s new rules, if lethal injections are made legally or logistically unavailable, the federal government can use any method that is legal in the state where the execution is located.
The rule took effect on Dec. 24, 2020, and thus far has not been applied: All 13 Trump-era executions were done by lethal injection. But the expanded methods of execution could be relevant in the future. Opponents of the death penalty have pushed drugmakers to withhold the drugs needed to conduct lethal injections, complicating efforts to impose capital punishment. In Indiana, home to the Terre Haute facility where most federal executions are conducted, the new policies “legally open the door for the authorized use of firing squads, electrocution, or the gas chamber,” the Indianapolis Star reported at the time.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr, the ideological architect of Trump’s execution binge, told Rolling Stone in December that Trump and his administration would have had more people put to death soon, had he won a second term in 2020. “Yes — that was the expectation,” Barr succinctly summarized in a phone interview.
There are 44 men on federal death row. The only woman on federal death row in modern times was Lisa Montgomery, whom Trump and Barr put to death on Jan. 13, 2020.
There could soon be a 45th prisoner on federal death row. The Justice Department is seeking the death penalty for convicted domestic terrorist Sayfullo Saipov, who steered a truck onto a bike path and pedestrian walkway in New York City on Halloween in 2017, and is set to be sentenced in federal court in the days ahead. Biden and his attorney general, Merrick Garland, implemented a moratorium on capital punishment, but the sentence would leave Saipov eligible for execution under a future president.
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