As violent crime soars in Washington, D.C. , Trump vows a 'federal takeover'

Donald Trump has never been a fan of Washington, D.C., and the feeling is mutual among most of its residents, who broke into spontaneous street celebrations when he lost the White House.

But the former president’s animosity has only grown since he left the city and as violent crime has continued to climb in the capital, while falling from pandemic-era highs in other cities, leading Trump to campaign on a “federal takeover of this filthy and crime-ridden embarrassment to our nation.”

Trump repeatedly promised to essentially occupy the capital with federal troops, a tactic he flirted with during the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in his final year in office, telling a conservative audience last year, “I will send in the National Guard until law and order is restored” and that he “wouldn’t even call the mayor.”

Washington has legitimately become a national outlier on violent crime, making 2023 the city’s deadliest in more than two decades, even as violent crime dropped in nearly every other city in America. Nearby Baltimore, for instance, infamous for its crime and blight portrayed in “The Wire,” saw its biggest drop in homicides on record last year.

In D.C., though, shootings, homicides and carjackings all soared, spilling into neighborhoods that have typically been spared that kind of violence, including the downtown area occupied by office workers, and making many longtime residents feel unsafe for the first time.

The headlines are piling up of residents shot in DuPont Circle, in a Metro station, outside Nationals Park, and walking home from work. On Monday, a former Trump administration official was shot seemingly at random while waiting to pick up his wife on K Street, famously home to many of the city’s white-shoe law and lobbying firms.

Trump, Republicans in Congress, and their allies in the conservative media have used Washington — where Democrats typically receive about 90% of the vote for president — to portray the entire Democratic Party as soft on crime ahead of the November election and argue it needs more federal oversight.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s long-serving advocate on Capitol Hill, said the city needs more autonomy, not less, to tackle crime, given the well-documented coordination failures between the city’s federal and local agencies. But she fears even Home Rule, the legislation that let D.C. residents elect their own government for the first time in 1974, could be in jeopardy.

“I think he would do all his could to keep statehood from happening, but also to roll back Home Rule,” she said. “There’s no question in my mind that if he were to gain control of the presidency again, we could lose most of the control we have over the city now.”

What’s behind the capital’s crime?

The causes are myriad and so is the finger-pointing, with the D.C. Council, the mayor, the police, prosecutors, the courts, and the mismanaged crime lab all coming in for blame.

Bret Tolman, a former U.S. attorney appointed by George W. Bush, who is now executive director of the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime, chiefly blamed Washington’s chief prosecutor for declining to prosecute most cases.

“We do not need to change the law. We do not need a president coming in and using the National Guard to take over the city,” he said. “All you need is a person on the job, whether Republican or Democrat, telling people they will enforce the law.”

The D.C. Council made national headlines last year for passing a penal code reform that was widely panned as too lenient. Congress used its power over the capital city to kill the law and President Joe Biden notably decided against vetoing it, sending a clear message to Democrats that it was time to get tougher on crime.

Months later, as violent crime continued to climb, the D.C. Council moved the other direction, ​​voting 12-1 in favor of the first of several pieces of emergency legislation to tackle crime, by, among other things, making it easier for police to hold suspects before trial.

But Republicans have focused on the first measure, turning the national spotlight on the city in two congressional hearings last year.

Trump has repeatedly tried to get his criminal trial moved out of Washington, arguing he cannot possibly get a fair trial in the city, not only because a jury pool would be drawn from the city’s largely hostile residents, but because “I am calling for a federal takeover of this filthy and crime ridden embarrassment to our nation.”

In December, he said on Truth Social that Washington “has become a dirty, crime ridden death trap, that must be taken over and properly run by the Federal Government,” adding the plan was a key part of his platform.

Last week while campaigning in Las Vegas, Trump vowed to “take over our horribly run capital” and renovate it so “it’s no longer a nightmare of murder and crime.”

“We’re going to federalize it. We’re gonna have the toughest law enforcement in the country. We’re not going to have any more crime and it’s going to look beautiful,” Trump added.

Law & Order: D.C.

In some ways, Trump’s attacks on Washington are similar to the ones Republicans have levied against major American cities for decades.

But despite decades of activism in favor of D.C. statehood, Washington remains essentially a ward of the federal government and the powers it has to govern are entirely derived from Congress — which could theoretically revoke them.

Congress can — and does — kill legislation passed by the D.C. Council and has authority over its budget, while most of the city’s parks and much of its infrastructure are run by the federal government.

Meanwhile, the “Order” part of D.C.’s “Law & Order” is run by the federal government. The president appoints the District’s judges and its chief prosecutor, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, whose office handles both federal and routine local crimes, unlike any other city in the country.

The local Attorney General conducts most juvenile prosecutions, but supervision of juveniles in the system is handled by a federal agency.

‘Entirely solvable’

Charles “Cully” Stimpson of the conservative Heritage Institute, who was once a prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office, testified before the House last year on the invitation of Republicans.

He said many of Washington’s problems could be solved in ways that would not violate the city’s Democratic values.

“This is a man-caused problem and it is entirely solvable,” Stimpson said. “If you parachuted in the California penal code and then put in basically any other DA and made them the U.S. attorney, crime rates would drop immediately.”

U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, declined to prosecute two-thirds of people arrested in 2022 and 44% in 2023, while critics blame his office for being too quick to plead down cases that were prosecuted. Stimpson also criticized Graves for taking gun cases to the local court, where convictions are difficult for various reasons, instead of to the federal courthouse next door, both of which are available to him.

In its defense, the U.S. attorney’s office has pointed to rising prosecution rates in recent months, welcomed the arrival of new prosecutors and resources from the Justice Department, and said many cases had to be thrown out in recent years because the troubled D.C. crime lab lost its accreditation, which it only regained in December.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police Department has been arresting fewer people. The number of arrests made per officer fell steeply during the pandemic to nearly half of pre-pandemic levels and have not recovered, despite an uptick under its new chief, Pamela Smith, who was installed in July.

At a town hall in November, former Assistant Chief Morgan Kane, who retired last month, said getting officers “back in the game” after 2020 has been “a big push” from the chief and other leaders. “At this point, what we’re really doing is rebuilding their confidence back up,” she said.

E​​duardo Ferrer, the policy director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative at Georgetown University’s Law School, who has worked to improve the city’s juvenile justice system, said, “What D.C. needs is more control, not less.”

Meanwhile, he said, while the city has zero gun stores, it is inundated by illegal guns from neighboring states, and federal courts have rolled back strict gun laws that D.C. implemented.

“If the Feds wanted to do something about gun crime in D.C. they should be doing more to stop the flow of illegal guns into the city,” he said. “We shouldn’t be punishing our people in D.C. for a problem that’s essentially been foisted upon us.”

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