What ‘The Central Park Five’ Teaches Us About a Trump Administration

How Trump's decades-long condemnation of five innocent men proves Clinton's indictments of a non-presidential temperament.

Yesterday, in the midst of a lengthy, meticulous, and blistering rundown of the dangers of a Donald Trump presidency, presidential contender Hillary Clinton offered up this chilling hypothetical: “Imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Situation Room, making life-or-death decisions on behalf of the United States. Imagine him deciding whether to send your spouses or children into battle. Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal. Do we want him making those calls — someone thin-skinned and quick to anger, who lashes out at the smallest criticism? Do we want his finger anywhere near the button?”

This strategy – of underscoring the fundamental danger of placing our nuclear codes near the short fingers of a petty, ill-tempered, egomaniacal ignoramus – isn’t exclusive to Clinton; it’s been in circulation for a while, and it may have the best chance of sticking of any anti-Trump narrative. But it’s also hard to get a real snapshot of someone’s character (or, in Trump’s case, lack thereof) when they’re in campaign mode, where statements are made and positions are changed in the interest of influencing voters, blurring the crystal ball that predicts behavior once in office. That’s why we have to talk about Trump before the campaign. That’s why we have to talk about the Central Park Five.

The notorious case of the Central Park jogger and the five men imprisoned for her rape is best told in Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five, and the film of the same name she made with father Ken and David McMahon (it’s streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime); if you haven’t seen it, just go do that. In a nutshell: on the night of April 19, 1989, a young woman named Trisha Ellen Meili was assaulted, raped, and left for dead during a jog through Central Park in the midst of what contemporary media reports described as a series of crimes by a loose gang of black and Hispanic teens. Five of them – Korey Wise (16 years old), Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray (both 15), Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson (both 14) – were charged various crimes related to the attack, including attempted murder, rape, assault, and robbery, based on their own confessions. But before they could go to trial (less than two weeks after the attack, in fact), Mr. Trump spent $85,000 to run this full-page ad in all four of the New York City dailies:

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In it, he urged the city’s powers-that-be to quit “pandering to the criminal population,” and to “bring back the death penalty” against “roving bands of wild criminals.” He didn’t specifically mention the Central Park Five, but the inference was impossible to misplace. “I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” he wrote. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, should be executed for their crimes.” (Reagan’s onetime White House Director of Communications and professional racist Pat Buchanan went full lynch mob, supposing in the New York Post that if “the eldest of that wolf pack were tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park, by June 1, and the 13- and 14-year-olds were stripped, horsewhipped, and sent to prison, the park might soon be safe again for women.”) Unlike much of Trump’s rhetoric, this is a policy position that has not shifted since the 1990s; as The Atlantic’s Matt Ford notes, back in December Trump promised, “One of the first things I’d do in terms of executive order if I win would be to sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country, out to the world, that anybody caught killing a policeman, policewoman, police officer, anybody killing a police officer: death penalty. It’s gonna happen.”

The problem with Trump’s condemnation of the five young men eventually convicted for Meili’s rape was simple: they didn’t do it. They had long claimed their confessions, wildly inconsistent and given under duress, were coerced. But in 2002, one Matias Reyes – already serving time for other rapes and murders – came forward to confess to committing the crime, alone. His DNA matched semen found at the scene; none of the men who had by this time served sentences from five to 15 years were a match. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated, and several of the men sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. In 2014, after more than a decade, the city settled for $41 million.

Most people, being reasonable, rational, thoughtful, or ashamed of their own call for the execution of minors, might rethink their previous statements, apologize for them, or, at the very least, shut the fuck up. Donald Trump is not most people; he doubled down. When challenged about the case on Twitter in 2013, he replied:

And after the announcement of the 2014 settlement, Trump penned an op-ed in the New York Daily News (which helpfully ran it next to a reproduction of his original “bring back the death penalty” ad). “The justice system has a lot to answer for, as does the City of New York regarding this very mishandled disaster,” he wrote, which is true! Oh, wait, he’s talking about the settlement, not the indictment, conviction, and imprisonment of five young men who committed no crime. (And while the Central Park Five, who were deemed the only possible suspects by the NYPD on the night in question, were being investigated, tried, and convicted, Reyes attacked at least five more women before his arrest that August.)

“Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts,” Trump continued. “These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.” And he’s right; when they were 13, they had so many behavioral problems that their fathers had to ship them off to military school. Oh wait, sorry, no, that was Donald Trump. “At 14 years old, one doesn’t have much of a past to speak of,” noted The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson. “What one might have is a future.” Of course, Trump wasn’t actually commenting on the limited “pasts” of these young men; he was merely sounding the reliable “no angel” dog whistle, trotted out every time a young black man (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, etc.) is murdered or imprisoned, to assure racists that, guilty or not, they got what they had coming.

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But if Trump’s behavior is unsurprising from a casually racist blowhard businessman and reality TV personality, it’s terrifying from a man one election away from the presidency, and the diplomatic, military, and nuclear power that comes with it. Because back in 1989, Donald Trump looked at an 11-day-old crime, listened to his world-famous “gut”, and declared five people so guilty that the state of New York should resurrect capital punishment to deter such “crazed misfits” as them. More than a decade later, when those people’s guilt was disproven by both a confession and DNA match, Mr. Trump was not willing to revise his opinion, admit he’d made a mistake, or learn from it. That’s what “weak” people do; Donald Trump doesn’t make mistakes. And even if he knows he has, his Nebuchadnezzar-level pride won’t allow him to admit it.

Contrast this with Clinton’s Achilles heel (which Bernie Sanders eagerly raised, again, after her Trump takedown): her 2002 Senate vote to authorize military action in Iraq, which she defended, for a time, before owning up to her error. “I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices. “And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

Imagine Donald Trump saying – or more likely tweeting – those words. Came up dry, huh? Yet that’s among the most elemental requirements of the job he’s applying for: making informed decisions, based on facts and data and (god forbid) one’s own curiosity, and being open to revision based on new information. In other words, the dialectic opposite of Donald Trump, 69-year-old man-child, shit-talker, narcissist, and know-nothing. “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes,” Clinton noted, “because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.” And she’s right. It’s horrifyingly easy.

UPDATE 10/7/16: In a statement to CNN this week, Trump reiterated his belief in the guilt of the Central Park Five. “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”