Former President Donald Trump has made executing drug dealers a central part of his messaging in recent months, embracing a favorite tactic of authoritarian regimes and placing it center stage as he launches his third run for the presidency.
“We are going to be asking everyone who sells drugs, gets caught selling drugs, to receive the death penalty for their heinous acts,” Trump said Tuesday to cheers from his supporters at Mar-a-Lago, the social club he owns in Palm Beach, Florida. The line was part of an hour-plus-long speech announcing his plans to challenge President Joe Biden in 2024.
Trump has long mused about executing drug dealers, and first publicly mentioned it after a meeting with Singapore’s leaders in 2018. His emphasis on the topic as he kicks off a 2024 bid, however, shows how likely Trump is to deploy his unchecked instincts for authoritarianism if he wins the presidency again.
He’s not even bothering to hide the authoritarian roots of his proposal. Trump explicitly credits President Xi Jinping, the dictatorial leader of China, with giving him the idea.
“In China, when I was with President Xi, I said: ‘President, do you have a drug problem?’” Trump said Tuesday night at Mar-a-Lago, recounting Xi purportedly saying the problem was solved by “quick trials” where “by the end of the day you’re executed.”
“That’s a terrible thing, but they have no drug problem,” Trump said. (It’s worth noting here Trump is a serial fabulist, that his recollection of his conversation with Xi may not be trustworthy, and that China actually does have a drug problem.)
Trump usually suggests when mentioning the death penalty for drug dealers that he knows it’s an extreme idea. “I don’t even know if the American public is ready for it,” he said Tuesday.
It’s extremely unlikely Trump could implement such a proposal. Republicans in Congress seemed taken aback by the idea on Wednesday, and a one-day trial for anyone accused of dealing drugs would violate numerous constitutional protections for those accused of crimes.
“I must say I respect the fact that the president speaks candidly about these matters, but that’s something that I hope that he would allow me to share my insightful opinions about,” Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) told HuffPost.
Several Republicans in Congress said they’d never heard the idea when HuffPost brought it up on Wednesday.
“That’s a lot to think about,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said.
“That’s not a policy I’m aware of,” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said.
“Seems a little extreme,” Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) said. “But I will say that we’ve lost, the past couple of years, hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), however, endorsed the death penalty for fentanyl dealers. “I think fentanyl is such a deadly drug that that concept should be on the table,” he said.
Both Democrats and Republicans have pushed for crackdowns on fentanyl, the ultra-powerful opioid that has driven drug overdose deaths to record highs in recent years. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have urged the administration to permanently list fentanyl as a Schedule 1 drug, over the objection of liberal groups who want Biden’s administration to take a public health-centric approach to opioid addiction and roll back the war on drugs.
In state and federal law, the death penalty is usually reserved for murderers. The Supreme Court has said the death penalty is an excessive and unconstitutional punishment for crimes that don’t cause death.
Besides China, a handful of other countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, regularly execute people for drug crimes. Trump has also specifically praised Rodrigo Duterte, former president of the Philippines, for his crackdown on drugs. Duterte’s anti-drug policies resulted in more than 12,000 deaths, many of them extrajudicial killings, and widespread human rights abuses.
Four years into Duterte’s term in office, the head of the anti-drug division of the Philippines’ national police force admitted the “shock and awe” strategy had done little to cut supply or demand for illegal drugs.