President Donald Trump officially proposed imposing the death penalty for certain drug dealers on Monday in New Hampshire, arguing that the federal government is “wasting our time” if it isn’t willing to put some traffickers to death.
The speech looked to balance the President’s controversial calls for the federal government to get tougher on drug crimes with less heated proposals for increased federal funding to combat the opioid epidemic through ad campaigns and health programs. But his call for the death penalty immediately drew condemnation from treatment advocates, law enforcement officials and civil liberty organizations.
“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” Trump told the audience in Manchester, New Hampshire. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
Trump went on to say that dealers “will kill thousands of people during their lifetime” but won’t be punished for the carnage they cause. He said the punishment would be used against the “big pushers, the ones who are really killing people.”
“This is about winning a very, very tough problem and if we don’t get very tough on these dealers, it is not going to happen, folks,” he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an embattled member of Trump’s Cabinet who has long frustrated the President, sat in the audience for the remarks. He later backed up his boss with a pledge to “seek the death penalty wherever appropriate.”
Others were not nearly as supportive.
Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, said Trump’s proposal was “absurd.”
“Drug trafficking is not an offense for which someone can receive the death penalty,” McCurdy said, referring to a Supreme Court precedent that puts constraints on using the penalty when the person convicted did not commit murder.
Trump’s talk of stricter penalties for drug crimes has long worried some treatment advocates, who have said there is no way the United States can punish its way out of the opioid epidemic. Many in law enforcement have said previously that “you can’t arrest your way out of the opioid crisis,” and public policy experts condemned the proposal even before the President rolled it out, arguing that it misses the cause of the opioid epidemic.
Even still, Trump pushed ahead with the proposal, while acknowledging Monday that some in the United States may not be ready for the death penalty for drug dealers.
“Maybe our country is not ready for that. It’s possible … and I can understand it,” he said, later disagreeing with himself and stating, “Although personally I can’t understand that.”
Monday’s event marks Trump’s first trip back to the first-in-the-nation primary state – and the state that that introduced the businessman-turned-politician to the opioid scourge – since he won the presidency.
Trump, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump for the event, described the forthcoming ad campaign as a “large-scale” effort aimed at convincing people not to use drugs.
“The best way to beat the drug crisis is to keep people from getting hooked in the first place,” the President said. “This has been something I have been strongly in favor of – spending a lot of money on great commercials showing how bad it is.”
Trump said he would direct people to make the commercials depict “pretty unsavory situations.”
That sort of strategy advocates targeting kids and young adults with anti-drug messaging, evocative of the “Just Say No” ad campaign of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Throughout Monday’s event, Trump linked his efforts to combat the opioid epidemic with the familiar immigration rhetoric that animated his 2016 campaign.
The President said Monday that a host of policy proposals – namely, building a wall along the US-Mexico border, ending so-called sanctuary cities and fighting gangs like MS-13 – would stem the tide of opioid abuse in the United States.
“Eventually the Democrats will agree with us and will build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” Trump said to chants of “build the wall,” giving the official White House event a campaign feel.
Republicans have long linked immigration policy to the opioid fight, but public policy experts have said that while it is part of the opioid problem, it is not the key issue.
“I wish to emphasize that while there are many high-impact policies available to us, I do not think that cracking down on sanctuary cities is one of them,” Keith Humphreys, who was an adviser for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, said in congressional testimony earlier this year. “That’s because the opioid epidemic was made in America, not in Mexico, China, or any other foreign country.”
Trump later slammed Democrats as playing on politics on immigration before claiming that he, too, would use the issue politically and win.
He then turned to sanctuary cities, municipalities that have policies in place to limit cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement actions.
“My administration is also confronting things called sanctuary cities that shield dangerous criminals,” Trump said, adding later that the cities are “safe havens for just some terrible people, some terrible people.”
Such cities “are making it very dangerous for our law enforcement officers. You see it all the time. As the people of New Hampshire have learned firsthand, ending sanctuary cities is crucial to stopping the drug addiction crisis,” the President said.
White House officials told CNN that Trump’s broader plan will focus on key areas: law enforcement and interdiction, prevention and education through a sizable advertising campaign, improving the ability to fund treatment through the federal government and helping those impacted by the epidemic find jobs while fighting addiction.
Congress recently appropriated $6 billion to combat the opioid epidemic, and a senior administration official told CNN that Trump’s plan will lay out how the White House believes that money should be spent. At the time, treatment advocates and drug policy experts were concerned the uptick in funding wouldn’t be spent wisely and wasn’t nearly enough.
Trump has credited voters in New Hampshire with introducing him to the opioid crisis during his 2016 campaign. He frequently referenced the scourge when campaigning in the state, which has been epicenter in the fight against opioids. But in a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto shortly after his inauguration, Trump referred to the state as a “a drug-infested den,” drawing fierce criticism from the state’s leaders.
Days before Election Day in 2016 – when time is a campaign’s most precious commodity – Trump even traveled to New Hampshire to discuss opioid addiction and pledge to make fighting the epidemic a focus.
His response as President, however, has been mixed, according to epidemic experts. The President has been accused of sidelining the Office of National Drug Control Policy, failing to heed the recommendations of his opioid council and focusing too much on the punitive measure to respond to the epidemic.
Trump in October declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, telling an audience of experts and people in recovery that “we can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”
Recently released numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that around 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. Since 1999, the number of American overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled.
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.