WASHINGTON – The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration said in an email to staff members over the weekend that President Donald Trump had “condoned police misconduct” in remarking to officers in Long Island that they need not protect suspects’ heads when loading them into police vehicles.
Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote that he felt obligated to respond to the president’s comments “because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong.” He cited the agency’s core values – among them integrity, accountability and respect and compassion.
“This is how we conduct ourselves. This is how we treat those whom we encounter in our work: victims, witnesses, subjects, and defendants. This is who we are,” Rosenberg wrote.
The email, sent Saturday, was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post also obtained a copy.
The White House has said Trump was joking when he told law enforcement officers in New York last week that they should not “be too nice” with suspects.
“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said before miming the motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?”
While Trump’s comments have been widely criticized by policing leaders, his message marks the first pushback from a federal law enforcement agency.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not address the president’s comments explicitly in a public speech Tuesday to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, commonly referred to as NOBLE, though he told the group’s leaders afterward that he felt the president was making a joke, said incoming NOBLE president Clarence Cox.
“I won’t say that he defended him, but he did say he felt like made that statement in jest,” he said. Cox said Sessions added that Trump was “not an attorney, he’s not a law enforcement practitioner, so he may not quite understand the effects of what he said.”
The attorney general, Cox said, was “careful not to criticize his boss,” though he tried to assure the group that he would continue to protect people’s civil rights.
“He didn’t offer any criticism, but he did say that as along as he is attorney general, he will utilize his office to make sure that civil rights are not violated,” Cox said.
Cox said the group’s view is the president’s remark “wasn’t funny. We were not laughing.”
Rosenberg wrote that his email was not meant to advance any “political, partisan, or personal agenda,” and he said he did not believe a DEA agent would mistreat a defendant. But he made clear in the first line his remarks were directed at Trump.
“The president, in remarks delivered yesterday in New York, condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement,” Rosenberg wrote.
When contacted Monday by The Washington Post and asked whether DEA leadership sent out any internal messages regarding Trump’s comments and the treatment of suspects, a spokeswoman denied that any “formal guidance” was issued. After The Post obtained a copy of Rosenberg’s email and the Wall Street Journal published a story Tuesday on the email, the spokeswoman, Katherine Pfaff, said she stood by her original remarks.
“I did say there was, the DEA circulated an internal email that focused on our core values and standards as a law enforcement agency,” Pfaff said in a brief interview Tuesday. “Nothing’s changed. There was no formal guidance.”
Pfaff said that in the agency’s view, the message was not a rebuke of Trump’s comments.
“As far as we’re concerned, it focused on our core values, that was the message that was being sent,” Pfaff said of Rosenberg’s email. She added: “That is something that’s sent out periodically. It’s not unusual for our leadership to reaffirm our values and our core standards. That’s something we’re committed to at the DEA.”
Rosenberg is not a Trump appointee, though he heads an agency that is playing an important role in the president’s promised crackdown on drugs and violent crime. He was appointed to head the DEA in 2015, during the Obama administration, in an acting capacity, and was held over during the transition. Before joining the DEA, he had served as chief of staff and senior counselor to James Comey, who was the FBI director until Trump fired him earlier this year.
Trump’s remarks at Suffolk County Community College were met with laughter and applause from at least some of the officers at his speech Friday. But almost immediately, departments and law enforcement officials began to criticize his comments, saying they were dangerous at a time of intense distrust between communities and police.
“Even if it’s an attempt at humor, it sends the wrong message,” Darrel Stephens, a former Charlotte police chief and now executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said. “Officers are expected and almost always do act within a framework of their policies and procedures and within the law. … It’s not something that you should joke about.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said at the daily briefing for reporters Tuesday that Trump was only kidding with his remarks, echoing a comment she had made a day earlier.
“I think you guys are jumping and trying to make something out of nothing,” Sanders said. “He was simply making a comment, making a joke, and it was nothing more than that.”
In response to a question about Rosenberg’s letter, Sanders said: “It wasn’t a directive, it was a joke. There’s a very big difference.” When asked if Trump plans to apologize given the outcry from law enforcement, Sanders said she would need to ask Trump and did not say whether she plans to do so.
Law enforcement leaders have been privately discussing Trump’s comments since his speech Friday and “universally” expressed “disbelief and disappointment” at the remarks, said Houston police Chief Art Acevedo.
Trump was endorsed last year by the National Fraternal Order of Police, and in a statement after his speech, the group’s president said Trump’s “off the cuff comments on policing are sometimes taken all too literally by the media and professional police critics.”
Policing leaders and officials interviewed this week said they appreciated Trump’s support for law enforcement, but they denounced his comments and described them as particularly troubling given the recent focus on how law enforcement officers use force. In recent years, fatal shootings by police and other incidents — many captured on video recordings that went viral — have sparked intense demonstrations across the country.
“It’s been a rough three years,” Charles Ramsey, the former police chief in the District and Philadelphia, said Monday on CNN. “In fact, the only reason the police have not been front and center in news stories around the country is because of President Trump. He took us off the front page.”