Who can’t President Trump kill?

January 23, 2020 11:37 am
President Donald Trump

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix in June 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Assassination is an ugly word.

It’s an even uglier thing to do.

Webster’s says it’s “murder by sudden or secret attack, often for political reasons.”

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. John F. Kennedy was assassinated. People tried, unsuccessfully, to kill Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

In each of these instances, the assassins and would-be assassins were treated as pariahs, not heroes. Just imagine if they had been ordered assassinated by a foreign leader.

It’s been about three weeks since Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani was ordered killed by President Donald Trump, who keeps insisting he be treated as a hero for this dubious deed – which almost ignited a full-fledged war between Iran and the United States.

“He should’ve been killed 20 years ago,” Trump boasted last week to supporters at a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On Trump’s orders, a U.S. drone fired rockets at Soleimani’s convoy as he was leaving the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3. 

Was Soleimani’s killing an assassination? An act of war? Preemptive self-defense?

I pose these questions not because I lament Soleimani’s death. While I don’t celebrate anyone’s killing, I get that Soleimani was a bad man. 

As head of Iran’s Quds Force, U.S. intelligence and defense officials say Iran under Soliemani’s direction had for decades backed militia and terrorist organizations across the Middle East, including those responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers.

To justify the assassination, Trump first claimed Soleimani had to be killed because he was plotting an unspecified “imminent” attack against the United States. But over the next couple of weeks, Trump couldn’t keep his story straight. At one point, he said the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was facing imminent attack. He later said Soleimani was planning to target as many as four American embassies. 

Pressed on the subject, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper eventually admitted on “Face The Nation” that he (the guy in charge of ordering missiles fired at our enemies) had seen no specific intelligence that U.S. embassies were targeted by Soleimani.

Apparently caught in the latest of more than 15,000 “false or misleading statements” – or, you know, lies – Trump then blurted out via Twitter that “it doesn’t really matter” if there was an imminent threat “because of [Soleimani’s] horrible past.”

As Trump keeps bragging at campaign rallies about his decision to kill Soleimani, none of this is generating the sort of headlines or public debate it might otherwise have because the president, as it happens, is on trial in the U.S. Senate and could be kicked out of office. 

Oh, that.

Since the Republicans who control the Senate are about as likely to convict and expel Trump as they are to ban Christmas, we’re likely stuck with a president who may have broken the law, again, and this time with deadly consequences. 

You see, assassination is illegal, at least if you or I did it.

Vicki Divoll, former assistant general counsel at the Central Intelligence Agency, says that while a president may not be barred from ordering the assassination of foreign leaders, such killings are considered murder under the U.S. Criminal Code

“On its face,” Divoll writes that President Trump’s “conduct and intent” regarding Soleimani’s killing “satisfy the elements of premeditated murder under Section 1116 of Title 18 of the United States Criminal Code, ‘Murder or manslaughter of foreign officials, official guests, or internationally protected persons.’ ”

In short, Divoll thinks Trump could be prosecuted on murder charges after he leaves office, since a Justice Department rule prohibits the criminal prosecution of a sitting U.S. president. I agree.

Trump’s own lawyers may also agree with Divoll. Last year, Trump’s lawyers argued in federal court that because he’s the president, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but he could not be prosecuted by New York authorities until he’s out of office.

Trump, meanwhile, claims that “Article II” of the Constitution says “I can do whatever I want” as president. I’m not so sure that Americans stand behind him on that.

Yes, Soleimani was a despicable human being. But so is President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose actions in that country’s civil war have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including rebels backed by the U.S. Should Trump be allowed to order al-Assad’s assassination? 

What about President Kim Jong Un of North Korea? He’s developing nuclear weapons and keeps firing missiles over Japan, a key American ally in the region. Should Trump kill him?

All of this has me wondering: Is there anyone President Trump, at least while in office, can’t kill with impunity?

Foreign leaders? Domestic political opponents? Personal enemies?



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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.