President Donald Trump’s special guests to the State of the Union address on February 5 included two people directly impacted by the criminalization of drug use: Matthew Charles, a person formerly incarcerated on crack cocaine charges that resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of almost 35 years, and Alice Johnson, a grandmother serving life without parole for drug charges, until Trump granted her clemency after meeting with reality TV star Kim Kardashian in 2018.
Trump’s invitations hinted at support for criminal justice reform and an end to the drug war—until his other guests were considered.
They included law enforcement notables like Elvin Hernandez, a Homeland Security special agent with a counter-narcotics history, and Timothy Matson, a Pittsburgh SWAT agent.
The juxtaposition of Charles and Johnson with the likes of Hernandez and Matson exemplifies Trump’s broader approach: Offer a few progressive concessions, while escalating law enforcement operations and demonizing vulnerable communities, such as undocumented immigrants.
Last year, for example, Trump signed a package of bipartisan bills responding to the overdose crisis— some aspects of which reformers can get behind, like renewed funding for treatment programs and broader access to naloxone.
But the bills also took steps that could be damaging for people who use opioids, like putting a chill on Medicare and Medicaid opioid prescriptions for people who need the medications. (Most people who “misuse” opioids, according to SAMHSA, do not obtain them through a prescription.)
One of the bills also equips law enforcement operations at border checkpoints with more tools for enhanced drug detection efforts—chiming with the rest of Trump’s xenophobic border policy.
This political messaging at the State of the Union was further emphasized by a family forefronted in Trump’s motley crew of special guests: the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of a couple “tragically murdered in their home,” in the words of a White House press release, by an undocumented person in January 2019. The press release highlights the death as a “terrible loss” that “devastated both their community and three generations of their family.” Benign in any other context, the description fits with Trump’s track record of using murders of white people by undocumented people to support his own agenda, as exemplified in the case of Mollie Tibbetts.
“A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her,” said Trump of Tibbetts in August 2018. “We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed.”
And Trump has already wielded them in a similar propaganda-like tweet.
Other special guests at the State of the Union include Ashley Evans, a woman who had been pregnant while relapsing on opioids—though she is now sober, as the press release from an administration that support “drug-free communities” made sure to stress.
Screenshot: The White House