In a meeting with county sheriffs from around the country on Tuesday, President Trump jokingly (we hope!) threatened to “destroy [the] career” of a Texas legislator who proposed requiring the government to obtain a conviction before taking property allegedly tied to crime. As Nick Gillespie noted, Trump’s knee-jerk support for civil asset forfeiture is troubling, especially in light of a growing bipartisan consensus that the practice should be reformed or abolished because it hurts innocent property owners and warps law enforcement priorities. Worse, the White House transcript of the president’s remarks about forfeiture shows he literally does not know what he is talking about, which suggests this “law and order” president is happy to go along with whatever cops want, even if he has no idea what it is.
Jefferson County, Kentucky, Sheriff John Aubrey broaches the subject of forfeiture, complaining that “people want to say we’re taking money and without due process.” According to Aubrey, “That’s not true. We take money from dope dealers.” Such assurances should be viewed with great skepticism, since civil forfeiture lets cops fund their own budgets by confiscating property they claim is connected to criminal activity. The government need not charge the owner, let alone convict him, and may not have to offer any evidence at all, since challenging forfeitures is often prohibitively expensive. It’s clear from Trump’s response to Aubrey’s complaint that he does not know any of this (italics added):
Trump: So you’re saying—OK, so you’re saying the asset taking you used to do, and it had an impact, right? And you’re not allowed to do it now?
Aubrey: No, they have curtailed it a little bit. And I’m sure the folks are—
Trump: And that’s for legal reasons? Or just political reasons?
Aubrey: They make it political, and they make it—they make up stories. All you’ve got to do—
Trump: I’d like to look into that, OK? There’s no reason for that. Dana, do you think there’s any reason for that? Are you aware of this?
Acting Attorney General Dana Boente: I am aware of that, Mr. President. And we have gotten a great deal of criticism for the asset forfeiture, which, as the sheriff said, frequently was taking narcotics proceeds and other proceeds of crime. But there has been a lot of pressure on the department to curtail some of that.
Trump: So what do you do? So in other words, they have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it. So who gets it? What happens to it? Tell them to keep it?
Boente: Well, we have what is called equitable sharing, where we usually share it with the local police departments for whatever portion that they worked on the case. And it was a very successful program, very popular with the law enforcement community.
Trump: And now what happens?
Boente: Well, now we’ve just been given—there’s been a lot of pressure not to forfeit, in some cases.
Trump: Who would want that pressure, other than, like, bad people, right? But who would want that pressure? You would think they’d want this stuff taken away.
Aubrey: You have to be careful how you speak, I guess. But a lot of pressure is coming out of—was coming out of Congress. I don’t know that that will continue now or not.
Trump: I think less so. I think Congress is going to get beat up really badly by the voters because they’ve let this happen. And I think badly. I think you’ll be back in shape. So, asset forfeiture, we’re going to go back on, OK?
Aubrey: Thank you, sir.
Trump: I mean, how simple can anything be? You all agree with that, I assume, right?
Unnamed Participant: Absolutely, yeah.
Trump: Do you even understand the other side of it?
Trump: It’s like some things—
Participant: No sense.
Even though Aubrey talks about “tak[ing] money from dope dealers” and Boente refers to “narcotics proceeds and other proceeds of crime,” Trump initially seems to think asset forfeiture is what happens when police seize “a huge stash of drugs.” He is puzzled that anyone would say the cops should return a pile of cocaine or heroin to a drug dealer, because “you would think they’d want this stuff taken away.”
Eventually Trump seems to get that it’s money (or other assets) the cops are taking, but he still assumes it’s money lying next to a huge stash of drugs—as opposed to, say, the savings of a hapless college student, the winnings of innocent poker players, or the bank account of a convenience store owner whose deposits the IRS deemed suspiciously small. Trump is baffled as to why anyone would want to stop the cops from taking drug dealers’ profits.
Aubrey and Boente, who obviously know better, are not about to enlighten Trump, since they both have a financial interest in promoting forfeiture, which helps fund their budgets. Aubrey leaves the impression that it’s only bad guys who lose their property, saying anyone who claims otherwise is just “mak[ing] up stories.” Boente leaves the reasons for the “pressure” and “criticism” utterly mysterious. And when Trump asks a roomful of cops and prosecutors if they “even understand the other side of it,” it is hardly surprising that no one pipes up to explain the critics’ arguments. By the time Rockwall County, Texas, Sheriff Harold Eavenson mentions a state senator “who was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we can receive their forfeiture,” Trump is automatically outraged: “Can you believe that?” It’s the greedy leading the blind.
Jeff Sessions, who yesterday was confirmed as Trump’s attorney general, is not likely to fill the gaps in the president’s understanding of forfeiture. Sessions, a former U.S. attorney, is an old-fashioned drug warrior and forfeiture fan who sees no reason to restrain the practice. At a 2015 hearing on forfeiture reform, Sessions claimed, without citing any evidence, that “95 percent” of people who lose money to forfeiture have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” He said “it’s unthinkable that we would make it harder for the government to take money from a drug dealer.” When Trump suggests that only “bad people” see anything wrong with civil forfeiture, Sessions will heartily agree.