It’s becoming distressingly likely that America is headed into the most dishonest presidential election campaign in its history.
The mere presence of President Donald Trump in the 2020 race guarantees a relentless harangue of falsehoods and distortions. But what’s worse is that Trump seems to have re-created much of American politics in his own shameless image.
Mendacity has never been rare among politicians. The habitual twisting, concealment and exaggeration had been growing worse for decades even before Trump became its apotheosis.
But this month a mob of Trump’s Democratic challengers have crossed a frontier, brazenly misrepresenting well-established facts in a manner that cruelly slanders a wrongly demonized police officer and deepens toxic divisions in our unhealthy land.
Aug. 9 marked the fifth anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by former cop Darren Wilson. Riotous protests and frenzied national media attention turned that tragic 2014 encounter into a watershed event, kindling a lasting national soul-searching over strained, too-often-violent relations between police forces and African-American communities, and in particular police shootings of young black men.
The attention Ferguson helped focus on these large issues has been far from all bad. But the simple fact remains that exhaustive credible investigation — by the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama — showed conclusively that in the specific case of Wilson and Brown the overwhelming weight of evidence reveals Officer Wilson was innocent of wrongdoing and the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative suggesting Brown was ruthlessly executed was false in every important detail.
In a sane and decent country that cared about the rule of law, that would still matter.
But in today’s America, these facts didn’t stop leading Democratic presidential hopefuls from stampeding to commemorate Ferguson by resurrecting the discredited horror story, in tweets of course.
U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren went furthest — by far. Harris decried “Michael Brown’s murder” and Warren added that he “was murdered by a white police officer.”
Less irresponsible echoes that followed from other candidates, none alleging “murder,” make a fascinating case study in the fine art of misleading insinuations that leave room for denial or retreat.
Sen. Cory Booker described Brown’s death as involving “police violence and racism.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders said Brown “should be alive today,” adding “we must finally end police violence against people of color.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said “no one should die due to the color of their skin” — suggesting that’s what happened to Brown.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand decried the “injustice” done to Brown’s family.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said Brown’s “death stirred the conscience of our nation” and vowed to “ensure justice … regardless of skin color.”
Clearly, Harris and Warren — a former prosecutor and a law professor, mind you — have the most to answer for with the inexcusable accusation of “murder.” But all these innuendos seem carefully calibrated according to how far left in the Democratic electorate a candidate is reaching for votes. All portray Brown as a victim of injustice at Wilson’s hands.
But the facts say otherwise. On Aug. 9, 2014, Wilson stopped Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., identifying him as a suspect in a strong-arm store robbery. Wilson said the nearly 300-pound Brown then assaulted the officer through the window of his squad car, trying to take away his gun. When Brown fled, Wilson pursued, ordering him to stop. Brown, Wilson said, eventually turned and charged, ignoring orders, until Wilson opened fire and shot Brown six times, killing him.
Shocking claims that Brown had been trying to surrender when Wilson coldly executed him received enormous media attention as Ferguson streets erupted in protest and violence. Criticism was intense when a grand jury refused to bring charges against Wilson.
But then, in March 2015, Department of Justice prosecutors issued an 86-page review of the evidence, exonerating Wilson and declining to bring any federal civil-rights charge against Wilson, either.
The DOJ report was detailed and unambiguous in concluding that witnesses who created the “hands up, don’t shoot” story were not reliable and that “there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.”
Elsewhere, the report declared: “At the time of [Wilson’s] interview, federal prosecutors … were aware of the autopsy, DNA, and ballistics results. … Wilson’s account was consistent with those results, and consistent with the accounts of other independent eyewitnesses. … Wilson’s statements were consistent with each other in all material ways. … [I]n analyzing all of the evidence, federal prosecutors found Wilson’s account to be credible.”
And in another tolerably clear passage, the report concludes: “There is no credible evidence to refute Wilson’s … belief that he was acting in self-defense. … Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other credible eyewitness accounts. Even if Wilson was mistaken in his interpretation of Brown’s conduct, the fact that others interpreted that conduct the same way as Wilson precludes a determination that he acted for the purpose of violating the law.”
On the very same day that it issued this decisive finding on Wilson, the Obama Justice Department released a broader, unflattering report on other kinds of racial discrimination by the Ferguson Police Department. That broader department study received lavish press attention nationwide, while news of Wilson being cleared did not. It was the culmination of one-sided media treatment of the Ferguson story that I detailed at the time.
Because of the way the story was reported five years ago, it’s small wonder if many Americans don’t know the real facts. But it is hard to believe that any of these presidential candidates are unaware of how misleading their statements about this anniversary have been.
Interestingly, one welcome development in all this is that numerous press outlets have seized this opportunity to re-tell the real story of Brown and Wilson and to scrutinize the candidates’ versions. Several respected fact-checkers have given Warren and Harris in particular low marks.
That willingness to defend the truth no matter which political faction is offending it may come in handy as the campaign slouches on.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.