Former President Donald Trump seemed confused during a recent interview when he was confronted with the fact that his proposed plan to impose the death penalty on drug traffickers would have condemned a woman he pardoned and promoted as an example of a key criminal justice reform achievement during his administration.
Speaking with Fox News host Bret Baier, Trump first defended his extreme position that drug traffickers should be quickly convicted and executed, touting countries like China and Singapore for enforcing the lethal penalty against drug offenders. The 2024 Republican presidential candidate said that capital punishment “is the only way you’re going to stop” addiction.
Baier contrasted that position with the president’s support for bipartisan sentencing reform legislation, the First Step Act, that he signed into law in 2018. The host asked Trump about criticism that the reform led to the early release of certain individuals involved in drug trafficking who subsequently committed violent crime.
“But I focused on non-violent crime,” Trump said, citing his presidential commutation and pardon of Alice Johnson as an example. He said that Johnson, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole over her role in a cocaine trafficking ring in the 1990s, “got treated terribly” and “unfairly,” equating her treatment to his own as he faces multiple federal counts over alleged violations of the Espionage Act.
Trump said that Johnson’s trafficking activity was “mostly marijuana”—though her convictions largely concerned alleged cocaine sales. And when Baier reminded the former president that “she’d be killed under your plan,” Trump balked.
“Huh?” he said.
“As a drug dealer,” Baier said.
“No, no, no, under my—oh, under that? It would depend on the severity,” Trump responded.
“She’s technically a former drug dealer. She had multimillion-dollar cocaine rings. So even Alice Johnson?” the host pressed.
“She can’t do it,” Trump said. Then he said she “wouldn’t be killed” because his death sentence policy wouldn’t be retroactive and would “start as of now.” And then he argued that Johnson wouldn’t have engaged in drug trafficking if the crime was punishable by death at the time, making a deterrence argument.
“She wouldn’t have been a dealer. Now, she wasn’t much of a dealer because she was sort of like—I mean, honestly, she got treated terribly. She was treated—she was treated sort of like I get treated,” he said. “But she was treated very unfairly.”
The exchange is another example of the enigmatic drug policy worldview of the former president, who at one point more than 30 years ago said that the country needs to “legalize drugs” to win the war on drugs but is now campaigning on an aggressive drug warrior platform.
Trump has previously seemed to bask in the headlines about his criminal justice reform actions—namely clemency he granted to people during his time in the White House—but at the same time seeks to appeal to voters as a tough-on-crime candidate.
And while he’s voiced support for medical cannabis and the right of states to set their own marijuana policies, he’s also recently attempted to link mass shootings to “genetically modified” marijuana.
The seeming disconnect isn’t entirely dissimilar to that of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), another 2024 candidate seeking the GOP presidential nomination who has previously vowed to crack down on state-legal cannabis markets but pledged to “end” the drug war, to an extent.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.