MANCHESTER, N.H. — Ramping up his rhetoric and policy proposals, President Trump on Monday called for the death penalty for opioid traffickers and zeroed in on Boston and Lawrence for their so-called sanctuary city policies that protect illegal immigrants.
Speaking in a state ravaged by the opioid crisis, Trump called for broadening public awareness about addiction and expanding access to treatment and recovery efforts. But his main focus was on stiffer law enforcement efforts.
“We can have all the blue ribbon committees we want, but if we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time,” he said at a Manchester Community College gymnasium. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
Trump took aim at cities that have limited local cooperation with federal immigration authorities, mentioning Boston and Lawrence — two communities where the majority of residents are minorities — by name and saying “ending sanctuary cities is crucial to stopping the drug addiction crisis.” Trump repeated his call for Congress “to block funds for sanctuary cities and to close the deadly loopholes,” he said, drowned out by applause from about 500 people.
The Republican raised the prospect of stepping up Department of Justice lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, pledged to cut nationwide opioid prescriptions by one-third over the next three years, and said he’s working with Congress to plow $6 billion in new federal spending into prevention, enforcement, and treatment. He also called to the podium parents who lost their son to an overdose so they could tell their tragic story.
Trump’s speech meandered and included riffs on building the wall on the border with Mexico (“Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border, where, eventually, the Democrats will agree with us and we’ll build the wall to keep the damn drugs out.”); the sky-high prices of prescription drugs (“We’re getting your drug prices down.”); and the economy (“Some people say it’s never been this good.”).
But his most animated emphasis was on tougher penalties — the toughest — for “the big pushers, the ones that are really killing so many people,” as he put it.
The president recalled conversations he said he has had with unnamed foreign leaders, performing both sides of the dialogue in his account to the crowd.
“How’s your drug problem?” Trump said, recounting his question.
“We don’t have much of a drug problem,” these leaders reply, according to the president’s telling.
“What do you mean you don’t have a drug problem?”
“Well, we don’t have!”
“I say, ‘How come?’ ”
“We have zero tolerance for drug dealers!”
“I said, ‘What does that mean?’ ”
“That means we have the death penalty for drug dealers. We don’t have a drug problem.”
Trump then returned to his own voice.
“Take a look at some of these countries where they don’t play games: They don’t have a drug problem,” Trump said, bemoaning court cases in the United States that, he said, last 10 years only to free the alleged criminal at the end.
“We got to be tough. We have to be smart. We have to change the laws, and we’re working on that right now,” he said.
Trump has previously praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has embraced extrajudicial killings of people suspected of drug offenses.
Specialists, however, say it’s unclear if the death penalty for traffickers would be constitutional in the United States.
The president also announced a new White House website — crisisnextdoor.gov — and an ad campaign aimed at making youths terrified about the dangers of drugs to stop them from ever using them.
“When young people see the commercials, they’ll say ‘I don’t want any part of it,’ ” the president said. “That’s the least expensive thing we can do, where you scare them from ending up like the people in the commercials,” which he said would be very unsavory.
New Hampshire has been one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, it had the third-highest rate of deaths per 100,000 residents due to drug overdoses, behind West Virginia and Ohio.
Before the speech, Trump stopped at a fire station in Manchester, part of the Safe Station program, which allows people struggling with addiction to ask on-duty firefighters for help without fear of getting arrested.
“You save a lot of lives,” Trump told assembled firefighters and officials, touting the program as a national model.
But the president’s take on New Hampshire has been less charitable in the past.
In a conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2017, according to a transcript prepared by the White House and obtained by The Washington Post, Trump called New Hampshire “a drug-infested den.”
In his remarks on Monday afternoon, Trump cited a Dartmouth University study that he said found Lawrence is one of the primary sources of the deadly opioid fentanyl in six New Hampshire counties. And in an aside on the brutality of the MS-13 gang (“They don’t use guns; they’d rather use knives because it’s more painful and it takes longer.”), he appeared to note federal immigration officials recently arrested multiple members of the gang in Boston.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued a swift rebuke to the president’s inflammatory remarks, saying Trump “criminalized both our immigrant community and those suffering from substance abuse all in one speech today.”
Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants and a recovering alcoholic, said in a statement that it’s wrong to paint all immigrants as criminals and society can’t arrest its way out of the opioid epidemic.
Governor Charlie Baker also decried aspects of the speech.
“The president’s statements denigrating entire cities are plain wrong and our administration is proud to work collaboratively with municipal leaders across Massachusetts to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the state while increasing access to treatment and prioritizing prevention,” Baker said in a statement.
Massachusetts addiction specialists offered mixed reactions to the president’s proposals, deploring his call for incarceration and execution of certain drug dealers but praising the emphasis on expanding access to treatment.
“The policy position of the administration is a giant step forward. The rhetoric is the rhetoric,” said Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, a leader in promoting the role of police in helping addicted people to received treatment and avoid jail. “Expanding access to evidence-based treatment is precisely what this crisis needs.”
Ryan said he doesn’t support mandatory sentences or the death penalty for drug dealers but added those issues didn’t come up in a White House telephone briefing with advocates Sunday night.
“When the president says this is one of his top priorities, that brings focus and resources to this issue,” Ryan said.
But others asked whether those resources would materialize.
“What we still don’t have from the administration is a request for Congress to appropriate the funding we need to tackle this issue,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, codirector of opioid policy research at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.