Watching Donald Trump Try to Puzzle Out What ‘Asset Forfeiture’ Means Is Deeply Discomfiting

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President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with county sheriffs during a listening session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday. Photo: Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images

On Tuesday, in an incident picked up by NPR and a bunch of other outlets, Donald Trump joked to a group of sheriffs about “destroying the career” of a Texas state senator one of the sheriffs, Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas, was unhappy with. Eavenson is a fan of what is known as asset forfeiture, and the state senator had lobbied hard against a certain type of it.

What is asset forfeiture? Traditionally, it’s been the practice of taking someone’s stuff after they’ve been convicted of a crime — picture a DEA photo opp in front of a drug lord’s boats and jewelry and cars. But in many parts of the country, the practice has grown extremely loose, and there are numerous signs of widespread abuse. Law-enforcement officers can often take your stuff simply by, in effect, declaring that there’s some connection between you and a hypothetical crime — they don’t need to even arrest or charge you.

Sarah Stillman of The New Yorker wrote what is probably the definitive journalistic account of this subject, and her piece contains truly astounding stuff. In the story that leads off the article, for example, Stillman relates an incident in which a couple passing through Tenaha, Texas, with a bunch of cash to buy a used car was pulled over, brought to the local police station, and given a choice: Either they could sign a document handing the cash over to Tenaha, or they could be charged — despite a lack of any substantive evidence — with money laundering and child endangerment, meaning they would immediately be sent to jail and their children, who had been riding in the backseat, taken from them. If they signed the document, there would be no charges at all, so that was what they did. The couple would later learn that this was something of a tradition in Tenaha; there had been “a raft of complaints from out-of-town drivers who claimed that they had been stopped in Tenaha and stripped of cash, valuables, and, in at least one case, an infant child, without clear evidence of contraband.” (They joined in a class-action lawsuit fighting the practice.)

This sort of thing is disturbingly common, and some of the stories make the Tenaha incident look minor in comparison — as the subhead of Stillman’s article notes, “Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes.” That’s why, in recent years, something of a left-right alliance of criminal-justice reformers has formed to try to rein in the worst excesses of asset forfeiture, with many critics of the practice pointing out that police often target poor and minority citizens who lack the legal resources to defend their property. Basically the only groups that aggressively defends these types of asset forfeitures, on the other hand, are law-enforcement organizations themselves (and the politicians who want to broadcast unwavering support for them). They often claim asset forfeiture is a vital tool in their fight against drug cartels, but the full story is a bit more complicated and less noble: Asset forfeiture has become a big business. Some police departments rake in hefty sums from pulling people over, taking their stuff, and letting them go without charging them with anything. At a time of widespread state budget cuts, regularly harvesting the money and cars and other assets of local residents and passers-through has become a convenient way for some small-town police departments to stay in the black. Elsewhere, it’s used for other purposes: A Washington Post investigative series published in 2014, for example, revealed that, “Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.”

So, back to Trump and the sheriff: Trump made his joke after Eavenson complained about “a state senator in Texas who was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we can receive their forfeiture.” “Can you believe that?” responded Trump, before joking about ruining his career. As the Dallas Morning News reported Tuesday, it isn’t clear exactly which state senator Eavenson was referring to, but both Democrats and some Republicans there have pushed for laws to reform the state’s asset-forfeiture practices. And all they are asking is that someone be convicted of a crime before police take their stuff — they aren’t even questioning law enforcement’s authority to seize certain property.

The whole debate was new to Trump. As the White House’s transcript of the session where he made his joke makes clear (hat tip to Reason), the president didn’t appear to know what asset forfeiture was or what the debate over it entailed. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Trump, by his own admission, isn’t much of a reader, and has exhibited very little interest in questions of public policy. What’s interesting, though, is observing, through the transcript, the process of Trump puzzling through a new concept and trying to understand what it means and how it fits into his worldview.

Interesting and deeply, deeply discomfiting:

SHERIFF AUBREY: Sheriff John Aubrey, fifth-term sheriff, Jefferson County, Kentucky. Past president of National Sheriffs’ Association. And my fellow sheriffs have brought up a number of points, and I’d like to add two to it that I know are on your plate and the administration’s plate. The 1033 program, where we were sharing Department of Defense surplus material that helps us in our war. They were used in the war, and they helped us in our war. That got severely curtailed.

And the other thing is asset forfeiture. People want to say we’re taking money and without due process. That’s not true. We take money from dope dealers —

THE PRESIDENT: So you’re saying – okay, 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?

SHERIFF AUBREY: No, they have curtailed it a little bit. And I’m sure the folks are —

THE PRESIDENT: And that’s for legal reasons? Or just political reasons?

SHERIFF AUBREY: They make it political and they make it – they make up stories. All you’ve got to do —

THE PRESIDENT: I’d like to look into that, okay? There’s no reason for that. Dana, do you think there’s any reason for that? Are you aware of this?

[Then-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.

THE PRESIDENT: 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?

MR. 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.

THE PRESIDENT: And now what happens?

MR. BOENTE: Well, now we’ve just been given – there’s been a lot of pressure not to forfeit, in some cases.

THE PRESIDENT: 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.

SHERIFF 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.

THE PRESIDENT: 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, okay?

SHERIFF AUBREY: Thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: I mean, how simple can anything be? You all agree with that, I assume, right?

In reality, of course, none of the controversy over asset forfeiture centers around what authorities do when they find a “huge stash of drugs” — Team Let Them Keep Illegal Drugs has approximately zero members. So what’s striking here is the manner in which, over the course of an exchange that lasts perhaps a couple minutes, Trump progresses from learning of the existence of a new (to him) concept, to misunderstanding completely what it is and why it’s controversial, to developing a strong opinion about it painted in a childlike understanding of the world and of morality (“Who would want that pressure, other than, like, bad people, right?”), to expressing outrage that anyone could have an opinion about it that diverges from his own.

In this instance, we have full access to Trump’s thought process, to his confused knee-jerk conclusions. What’s going on behind closed doors, when the stakes are higher and there are no White House transcripts available?

Trump’s Exchange on Asset Forfeiture Is Quite Discomfiting