WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday backed away from his threat to send the suspect in the New York bike path attack to Guantanamo Bay, acknowledging in an early morning tweet that the military judicial process at the Cuban detention center takes longer than the civilian federal court system.
But President Trump called again for the man to be executed, which could complicate the case for prosecutors and give defense attorneys a chance to argue the president’s tweets hurt their client’s right to a fair trial.
President Trump tweeted Thursday morning that the case against Sayfullo Saipov, 29, “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” He had tweeted Wednesday night: “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”
His comments broke with longstanding tradition against presidents publicly commenting on criminal cases.
President Trump on Wednesday, in seemingly off-the-cuff responses to reporters, said he would consider sending Saipov to Guantanamo, a notion the White House later reinforced by saying it considered Saipov to be an “enemy combatant.” Authorities say Saipov was inspired by the Islamic State group when he veered into a city bike path in Manhattan on Tuesday, killing eight people.
But just a few hours later, the government filed federal terrorism charges against the Uzbek immigrant, signaling an intent to prosecute him within the U.S. The one-two developments marked a sharp disconnect between the president and his administration.
President Trump said Thursday he would love to see Saipov prosecuted at Guantanamo, but tweeted that there is “also something appropriate” about keeping him “in the home of the horrible crime he committed.”
The Obama administration made a similar argument in trying to move the five men accused in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from Guantanamo to New York for trial in a civilian court, an effort that was derailed by political opposition. Those cases are bogged down in pretrial litigation at Guantanamo and are likely years from resolution.
With the filing of federal charges against Saipov, there was little indication that the threat of Guantanamo was anything more than tough talk.
No one held within the U.S. has been sent to Guantanamo since the detention center opened in January 2002 to hold suspected members of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Still, elected officials routinely raise the prospect of doing so after attacks as a way to signal toughness in the fight against terrorism.
Just seven men have been convicted either by trial before military commission or through plea bargains, including four whose convictions were later overturned on appeal or invalidated.
President Trump said during the campaign that he wanted to fill Guantanamo with “bad dudes.” But the Justice Department last week opted to send a man accused of involvement in the 2012 Benghazi attacks to federal court in Washington to face charges — not Guantanamo.