To the extent that most Americans know anything about Jose Ines Garcia Zarate — to be honest, most Americans didn't know his name but just that there's some "animal," an undocumented immigrant with a criminal past who fired a gun and killed a bystander named Kathryn "Kate" Steinle walking along the San Francisco waterfront — it is what they were told about him by the future and now current president of the United States.
For Donald Trump, if Garcia Zarate hadn't existed, the 2016 GOP presidential candidate would have invented him — proof of his famous campaign-opening claim that Mexico is sending a steady stream of crooks across America's southern border. Steinle's death occurred in the early weeks of the Trump campaign, and he seized on the incident as he rose to the top of the GOP presidential polls, a warrior against what he called "illegals." He told a July 2015 rally in Iowa that "it turned out I was right. Beautiful Kate in San Francisco was shot by an illegal, who was here five times and they couldn't do anything about it." Trump even mentioned Steinle's killing in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention a year later — making the case, and the existence of "sanctuary cities" that offer certain protections to undocumented immigrants, a cornerstone of his political pitch to "the forgotten Americans."
But there was one fact that Trump never mentioned in the dozens of times he spoke on the campaign trail: Jose Ines Garcia Zarate — like every other human being that enters the American criminal justice system — is innocent until found guilty by a jury of his peers. His trial finally came this fall, 10 months after Trump had already surfed above the froth of the case all the way to the White House. The criminal defenders assigned to Garcia Zarate finally had a chance to tell his side of the story, one that the American voter had not heard — that he'd picked up a paper bag containing the gun (stolen a few days earlier from the car of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger) and it accidentally fired into the concrete sidewalk before ricocheting and fatally striking Steinle. Aided by forensic evidence and video footage, Garcia Zarate's lawyers convinced a San Francisco jury to find their client not guilty of murder, although he was convicted on a much lesser gun possession charge and still faces possible prison time and deportation.
No one disputes that the death of the 32-year-old Steinle was an unspeakable tragedy, and your heart must go out to her loved ones, including her parents, who had mixed feelings, at best, about their daughter's use as a political prop. While evidence that she was intentionally found murdered was lacking, Garcia Zarate's actions were reckless to point that one wonders whether prosecutors could have successfully sought a conviction on a middling charge like criminally negligent homicide, if that had been their focus. No one can be happy about how things turned out.
Still, one can't help but look at this case and declare it a victory, of sorts, for the kind of American criminal justice system that we've long held up as an ideal for other nations to emulate. Here was a man — not even an American citizen — who'd been called "an animal," with the presumption of guilt that came with that, by the president of the United States, cheered on by millions of his followers. Yet Garcia Zarate still — under our cherished system — had the right to an attorney and a fair jury trial, where he cleared his name on the murder charge. The system worked — and we should all celebrate that, even if many people weren't satisfied with the outcome.
Not surprisingly, President Trump didn't recognize that. "A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case!" he tweeted. "No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration." A second tweet called Garcia Zarate's "exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!" An online mob rallied behind the anger emanating from the White House. By the next morning, Trump's supporters had made #BoycottSanFrancisco a trending topic on Twitter.
The spectacle made me think about the late 1980s, when for a time I covered New York's late governor, Mario Cuomo, up in Albany. There were a lot of high-profile criminal cases at the time, and whenever Cuomo was asked about a controversial verdict he had a stock answer: "The law is the law." At the time, I thought that was a weird and somewhat insipid response. Three decades later, I have newfound appreciation. For Trump, the law is no longer the law. It's whatever outcome serves him, his cronies, or his political agenda.
The verdict in the Steinle case didn't really get that much attention — not surprising, with Trump-Russia bombshells going off every few hours and North Korea, according to the screaming headline across the bottom of CNN, threatening at start a nuclear war any time now — but it's one part of a disturbing pattern of Trump viewing the American justice system as something that can be bent to his whim.
When a prominent and early political supporter of the president — Arizona Sheriff
— faced federal contempt charges for his illegal stops of immigrants, Trump pardoned Arpaio before the case even went to trial, a stunning abuse of presidential power, and seemingly a test of what Trump could expect to get away with as he looks to squelch the probe of possible campaign collusion with Russia and an apparent cover-up.
Since taking office, Trump has taken extraordinary steps to hinder an independent investigation of those allegations. In February, he urged then-FBI director James Comey to let up on the investigation of his since-indicted national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to Comey's public testimony, and Trump fired Comey a short time later, admitting to NBC's Lester Holt that the Russia probe was a factor. The president has also fumed about Attorney Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the investigation — another norm of a functioning justice system — amid threats to force him out of the job. In an interview last month, Trump called it the "saddest thing" that he apparently can't force the FBI and Justice to investigate his 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton.
When Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI, a prelude to offering testimony against Trump insiders, the president turned his jihad against justice up to "11" on the dial. He spent much of the weekend on Twitter trashing the FBI, saying its reputation is "in tatters," and criticizing the Justice Department for not prosecuting "Crooked Hillary" — seeking to take down the justice infrastructure in the court of public opinion, at least among his handcore base. And then it got worse — much worse.
On Monday, trying to explain a bizarre Trump tweet (which may or may not have been drafted with outside help) stating that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when Trump pressured and then fired Comey, raising the specter of criminal interference, one of Trump's lawyers put forth the argument that a president, by definition, cannot commit obstruction of justice.
In other words, he claimed that Donald Trump is above the law. And this has only raised fears that this is all a prelude to Trump firing the special counsel investigating the Trump-Russia allegations, Robert Mueller — an act that would trigger America's worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War.
You can — and probably should — ask if there's been a point over these last 10-plus months when the Trump presidency veered into authoritarianism, with his threats against press freedom and his contempt for the truth. But there should be no debate over the escalating threats to the administration of justice and what they mean. This is dictator stuff, straight up. Trump's obstruction and obfuscation is bringing American democracy to the edge of a cliff — and things are only going to get harrier before it gets any better.
Congress, which holds the power to impeach a president for obstruction of justice and in fact did so just 18 short years ago, is the only logical hope. But this is a group that's preparing to welcome an accused child molester to Capitol Hill if it will help the GOP enact billionaire tax cuts, so … maybe not so much hope. Indeed, the Roy Moore Senate fiasco feels like another test of how far we can go to erase any remaining democratic norms before Trump puts the final nail in democracy's coffin by killing the Russia probe altogether.
Trump's contempt for justice — for fair trials and the presumption of innocence, for an independent FBI and Justice Department, for the notion that a president shouldn't abuse his pardon powers to reward his cronies, or reach into federal agencies to kill investigations into White House corruption — is something you'd expect to find in a small, backwards banana republic. The question isn't whether the president can commit obstruction of justice. The question now is whether the president will obliterate justice in this country. He's almost there.