Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) probably thought he was doing Donald Trump a favor when he cited the presidential candidate's 1989 campaign to "bring back the death penalty" as an example of Trump having a longstanding, no-nonsense attitude toward crime.
Instead, Sessions' comments, made during a recent radio interview, highlight just how dangerous Trump's "law and order" candidacy truly is.
During a recent radio interview Sessions lauded Trump's August 15 remarks in Milwaukee, where he called for more law enforcement following a weekend of civil unrest in the wake of the shooting death of a black man by police officers.
""That speech was great, and Trump has always been this way," Sessions told the hosts of WAPI's Matt & Aunie show, in remarks first noticed by Buzzfeed.
"“He bought an ad," Sessions continued. "People say he wasn’t a conservative—but he bought an ad 20 years ago in the New York Times calling for the death penalty. How many people in New York, that liberal bastion, were willing to do something like that?”
The ad to which Sessions was referring is a now-notorious full-page spread which ran in 1989 in all four of New York City's daily newspapers. Purchased by Trump for a reported $85,000, the ad called for the reinstatement of the death penalty and the full-throated support of police in the face of "a world ruled by the law of the streets" in which "roving bands of wild criminals rule roam our neighborhoods." The ad was published just weeks after five teenagers—four black, one Latino—were arrested and charged with the assault and rape of a white woman as she jogged through Central Park.
While never addressing that crime—a citywide sensation at the time—directly, Trump's words nevertheless painted a dark picture of New York for which the racial, and racist, implications were clear: Crime is all around, it's people of color who are largely responsible, and only by unshackling law enforcement from the "chants of 'police brutality'" will ordinary (read: white) citizens be safe.
There was, however, just one problem: All five of the teens arrested—the teens for which Trump had essentially, albeit indirectly, called to be executed—were innocent. In 2002 another person, already in prison on unrelated rape and murder charges, confessed to the Central Park attack, and the "Central Park Five," as they'd become known, were fully exonerated—after having already served their full sentences.
In response to their exoneration, Michael Warren, a lawyer for the men, pointed to Trump's ad as a catalyst in the ease with which his clients were found guilty.
"It was outrageous, the manner that Mr. Trump used to engage in his own personal form of rhetoric." Warren told the New York Times. "A lot of people felt it colored the eyes of prospective jurors who ultimately sat on the case. Now it's even more appalling, with new evidence that points exclusively to another person. I think Donald Trump at the very least owes a real apology to this community and to the young men and their families."
Trump, in quintessentially Trump-ish fashion, was unbothered by the criticism and the threat of repercussions outside his property, telling the Times, "I don't mind if they picket. I like pickets."
Which brings us to Session's comments.
By highlighting Trump's ad, Sessions has essentially attempted to put electoral lipstick on a racially-tinged pig of an ad—one which we now know was seemingly predicated on an entirely incorrect series of arrests, which lead to five innocent men spending years behind bars. If Trump is, as Sessions contends, truly the law and order candidate, his brand of law and order seems to be one that has to date been fundamentally flawed, and tainted with racial animus.
None of which seems to be of much concern to Trump's increasingly extremist campaign. But for the rest of the country, Session's comments are a chilling, if inadvertent, reminder of what Trump's dangerous rhetoric can truly accomplish.