President Trump was fending off another wave of racism charges last week when a gift fell into his lap. Rapper A$AP Rocky, the president learned, had been incarcerated in Sweden since early July for his role in a street fight the previous month. Footage of the minutes preceding the June 30 altercation show two men following Rocky and his entourage down a sidewalk in Stockholm; Rocky and his bodyguard ask the men repeatedly to leave them alone. (The men do not, though neither appears to speak English.) Footage from soon after shows Rocky with his hand on one of the men’s shoulders, appearing to ask him, once again, to let them be. Matters escalate. A video of the subsequent fight, published on July 1 by TMZ, shows Rocky throwing the man to the ground, after which his bodyguard and entourage kick and punch him.
President Trump got wind of the altercation and claimed on Twitter to have spoken to Kanye West about securing Rocky’s release. West is a vocal supporter of the president and a friend of the Harlem native. His wife, Kim Kardashian West, has asked Trump several times to grant clemency to various prisoners, and in 2018 convinced him to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offense. Along with the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Kardashian West was pivotal in convincing Trump to sign the First Step Act, a federal prison-reform bill. Her work on criminal-justice reform generally has given her family’s chumminess with the White House a veneer of public utility to contrast with her husband’s less substantive and more personal attraction to Trump’s “dragon energy.”
But if Trump’s brief clemency record is any indication, it was always unlikely that his indulgence of the West family would undermine his political agenda — which is defined by racist opportunism. To an extent, how any president wields their power to get people out of prison reflects their political priorities, as when Andrew Johnson pardoned all Confederates after the Civil War while opposing federal guarantees for black civil rights. With few exceptions, Trump has extended his ten pardons to conservative culture-war figures: people like former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious xenophobe; Dinesh D’Souza, a writer, filmmaker, and historical revisionist committed to proving the GOP is not racist; and Michael Chase Behenna, a former Army lieutenant convicted of murdering an Iraqi detainee. Trump’s thus far fruitless effort to free Rocky points to the same principles guiding his clemency mandate: People should be freed from prison if it feeds Trump’s ego or appeases his bigoted base, or if they’re black celebrities (or adjacent to black celebrities) whose proximity can be used to refute allegations of racism.
The timing of Rocky’s arrest seemed fortuitous for the president, as his efforts to loudly broadcast it made clear. He’d just launched the first of several broadsides against four Democrats and women of color serving in Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. The president suggested these women “go back” to the “totally broken and crime-infested” countries they “originally came from” — though only one was born outside the United States, and all four are U.S. citizens. His stated rationale for the remark was that these women are critical of America and therefore must hate it. Tellingly, he did not apply this same standard to himself when he complained that the U.S. was a crime-infested hellhole where “carnage” reigned and “suckers” proliferated.
Trump’s salvos were unambiguously racist, and critics identified them as such. He denied the charge, and likely saw in Rocky’s case a chance to counter it: “Many, many members of the African-American community have called me, friends of mine, and said, ‘Can you help?’” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday, in one of his more bizarre and pandering public statements. “I personally don’t know A$AP Rocky, but I can tell you that he has tremendous support from the African-American community in this country, and when I say African-American, I think I can really say from everybody in the country, because we’re all one.”
Trump also tweeted over the weekend: “Just had a very good call with [Swedish Prime Minister] Stefan Löfven who assured me that American citizen A$AP Rocky will be treated fairly. Likewise, I assured him that A$AP was not a flight risk and offered to personally vouch for his bail, or an alternative.” (There is no right to bail in Sweden, according to the Los Angeles Times.) In the meantime, Löfven has spoken to Trump and made it clear that Rocky will not receive any special treatment. “[In] Sweden everyone is equal before the law and … the government cannot and will not attempt to influence the legal proceedings,” read a statement from the PM’s office.
Trump has few remaining options to apply pressure, and may have to wait for Rocky’s July 25 hearing to learn whether the rapper will be released without charges — just like the rest of America. And though Rocky is now at the mercy of Sweden’s criminal-justice system, perhaps the impotence of Trump’s intervention will spare him the notorious conditionality of Trump’s good graces.
The president’s diplomacy dealings have showcased a pattern: He negotiated the release of Otto Warmbier from a North Korean prison and condemned the regime’s brutality, only to emerge from a summit with Kim Jong-un months later, claiming the leader had nothing to do with the 22-year-old’s death. He sided with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over his own intelligence community and Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and legal U.S. resident whom the CIA accused MBS of having killed. Trump’s concern for the well-being of others — even Americans — is often contingent on their utility to him as either a world leader aching to impress foreign autocrats, or as a politician desperate to appease his racist base while denying their racism and his own. Regardless of whom the Wests convince Trump to help free moving forward — whether it be the unjustly sentenced in the U.S. or their own rich friends abroad — that’s unlikely to change.