One of the dangers of haphazardly reviving right-wing media myths is that some falsehoods are much trickier than others to walk back. During the first presidential debate of 2016, GOP nominee Donald Trump learned this the hard way, when moderator Lester Holt of NBC News fact-checked him cold about the unconstitutional version of stop and frisk that the Republican presidential nominee recently proposed as a nationwide model.
During the September 26 debate, Trump once again invoked his support for New York City’s past application of stop and frisk, which was struck down by a federal judge three years ago and abandoned on appeal, much to the disappointment of right-wing media proponents of “order” over constitutional protections. When Holt responded that “stop and frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men,” Trump snapped back, “No, you’re wrong. … If you look at it, throughout the country, there are many places where it's allowed.”
But Holt was right. And that’s true without even getting into the fact that contrary to Trump’s assertions, the tactic was a proven failure at reducing violent crime in New York City.
The generalized police practice of stop and frisk may be a common one used across the country, but if the way it’s specifically practiced results in racial profiling, it violates the federal Constitution’s protections against equal protection violations and unlawful search and seizure. That’s exactly what happened in the since-abandoned version practiced in New York City, which was exactly what Holt pointed out. If that’s the version Trump supports, he is supporting an unconstitutional policy that impermissibly discriminates on the basis of race. If he instead merely supports the version that is “allowed” “throughout the country,” then how is that a solution for reducing crime rates when it’s already in effect?
This issue first cropped up during this campaign season on September 21, when Fox News’ Sean Hannity hosted a town hall for Trump, this one advertised as part of the nominee’s outreach to African-American voters. During the recorded event (which was bumped from airing that night due to protests over another questionable police shooting of a black man, this time in Charlotte, NC), Trump made the surprising proposal that his plan for protecting black residents of the “inner cities” was to bring back the widely reviled New York twist on stop and frisk that was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional racial profiling.
When Trump’s unaired comments leaked, media outlets immediately began calling out his support for an abandoned and racially discriminatory policing method as a peculiar form of outreach to black voters. In response, the next morning Trump falsely claimed on the September 22 edition of Fox & Friends that he really only meant that it should be brought back in Chicago – a city he apparently was unaware already employs the practice.
It was these confusing contradictions -- and Trump’s refusal to admit that his much-promoted “outreach” to African-American voters included a promise to stop and search them on the street because of the color of their skin -- that led Holt to try to set the record straight during the debate.
In the wake of this and the many other aspects of Trump’s disastrous debate performance, the nominee’s supporters began spinning hard, including by making the false claim that Holt had somehow claimed stop and frisk was unconstitutional everywhere. Trump supporter, former New York City mayor, and frequent stop-and-frisk defender Rudolph Giuliani was particularly vocal. First he falsely smeared Holt’s fact check, arguing on Fox News that “Lester Holt's statement was completely ignorant and completely uncalled for, and he shouldn't get involved in a legal issue he doesn't know a darn thing about.” Later, Giuliani added Clinton to his criticism on the issue, saying she’s “totally wrong and completely ignorant” about stop and frisk. He also tried to separate himself from the actions of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who were at the helm when the stop-and-frisk policies they inherited from Giuliani’s mayorship were ruled unconstitutional. “It’s not unconstitutional if you do it the right way -- and that's what [Trump] is talking about, doing it the right way,” said Giuliani. “It was never found unconstitutional when I did it.”
But Trump has specifically praised Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policies that were ruled unconstitutional – and he recently affirmed (intentionally or not) that this unconstitutional version of the practice still has his support.
And this was the dilemma Trump faced as Holt accurately fact-checked his embrace of New York City’s past application of unconstitutional stop and frisk. The right-wing media bubble out of which Trump plucked his stop-and-frisk soundbite has regularly been concerned with “order” first and the U.S. Constitution second (if ever). If he stuck with that, at least it would be intellectually honest. On the other hand, the “doing it the right way” stop and frisk approach Giuliani is falling back on to cover up for Trump has been in place for almost 50 years under the Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio -- so there’s no need for Trump to claim he’ll bring it back.
So which one is it?
It’s not Lester Holt’s fault that Trump and his surrogates can’t or won’t explain themselves. Some myths can’t survive outside the bubble.