By Janell Ross
Donald Trump, on Wednesday night, did what he so often does. He put Donald Trump at the center of a hot-button national debate. This time, questions about race, fairness and policing got the Trump treatment. And, for viewers, it was, no doubt, a full-on Trumpian experience.
Trump said some things people may not have expected. He also offered up some rare, first pass on an issue, Trump equivocation. But, Trump appears to be the only Republican presidential contender to comment on the case of Sandra Bland, the latest policing incident to draw national attention due to growing concerns about the way that law enforcement interacts with people of color.
Bland was an Illinois woman stopped while driving in Waller County, Tex., for what law enforcement officials have said was a failure to signal a lane change. Bland rebuffed questions and commands from the officer who stopped her. The officer ultimately took steps to remove her from her car, threatened to "light her up," and put Bland on the ground and in handcuffs. Three days later, officers found Bland dead in a Waller County jail cell. Officials there and an autopsy described Bland's death as a suicide. Her family and a number of activists have questioned this finding. Both state and federal law enforcement agencies are now investigating Bland's death.
With that background in mind, this is what Trump had to say about what he saw in that dashcam video of Bland's arrest in a one-on-one interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper:
Cooper: ... To African Americans in this country, and there's a lot of people who believe they are treated differently by police. Do you believe that there's a problem with that?Trump: I hope not but I will tell you that I saw that clip, on your show, by the way. I thought it was terrible. He was so aggressive. It was a traffic signal as I understand it. And you know, who gets out of a car for a traffic signal? I haven't been pulled over in a while actually. But, seriously he just looked very aggressive. I didn't like his demeanor. I thought it was terrible to be honest with you. And I'm a huge fan of the police. I think the police have to be given back power but this guy was overly aggressive, terribly aggressive.Cooper: Do you think that happens to African Americans more than it does to you or I?Trump: I hope it doesn't but, it might. And, you know, I have a great relationship with African Americans, as you possibly have heard. I just have great respect for them and you know they like me. I like them. The answer is, it possibly does. It shouldn't and its very sad if the case is. ... I will say though in this case I watched that so closely. I watched it a few times. He was terrible.
Fellow GOP presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been an outspoken critic of mass incarceration in the United States, a reality which disproportionately affects people of color. After a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, setting off protests in Ferguson, Mo., Paul also condemned the militarization of local police departments.
In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody set off waves of protests followed by a riot in April. During that time, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton described Gray's death as a tragedy, indicating problems in the system that needed to be examined and addressed. And two men who would later join the GOP race, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called for investigations. Bush also called on city and state officials to protect law-abiding citizens. And, Paul described the rioting as a result of the “breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders described the riot in Baltimore and conditions in Ferguson as situations made possible by mass unemployment and poverty. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's comments about his home city of Baltimore incorporated both Clinton and Sanders's ideas calling for an investigation into Gray's death and broader investment in cities. But critics also said that O'Malley's support for zero-tolerance policing in American cities, including during his tenure as Baltimore's mayor, fed tensions between police and the residents of some of Baltimore's poorest and overwhelmingly black neighborhoods.
Since the events in Baltimore, most of the Republican contenders have remained largely silent about the broader issues of institutional racism, racial profiling and police misconduct that are at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement. And Democrats have faced their own struggles with this group.
Trump's comments on CNN Wednesday did, however, echo many of the concerns that Black Lives Matter activists have expressed about Bland's arrest. So, this may well mark another moment where Trump has said something other Republicans will be asked about. Or, this could join the long list of Trump comments that simply hang, way out there, in the ether.