George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, best known for going on TV and arguing that Trump cannot be held accountable for whatever crimes were most recently revealed, is essentially the poster child for Trump apologists with legal credentials. He won’t go all in with the Trumpists, the way, say, Sidney Powell or Alan Dershowitz have. Instead, his role is defending or sanitizing the wildly illegal or unprecedented behavior of Trumpworld. It’s a good grift: American corporate media is always looking to excuse the Trump assault on democracy, and Turley, no matter how clearly he’ll contradict himself in the process, is always willing to debase himself to do that work.
Normally, it’s not a good use of ink or energy to focus on hangers-on like Turley. He’s not a root cause of the current eruption of lawless and antidemocratic judges and justices. He’s not (to the best of my knowledge) running for office, and nobody is going to give him $1.6 billion to subvert the rule of law. He’s not a decisionmaker who chooses to push misinformation on the nightly news; he’s the guy who answers the call when that choice has been made.
However, Turley also isn’t selling pillows. He’s a law professor at a respected Beltway law school whose takes are sold as “dispassionate analysis” to students who literally don’t know any better. His latest musings on the Republican willingness to ship immigrants around the country as a despicable political stunt captures everything that is wrong with this brand of law professor. His defenses alternate between obvious sleight of hand, and then, when that won’t do, coming up with some alternative facts to suit his narrative. His legal analysis packs all the subtlety of a magician screaming “look over there” before making a bird disappear by killing it.
After 48 immigrants, including children, were shipped up to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, I wrote that the governor and his agents should face charges for kidnapping. I noted that reports indicate these people were told they were being sent to Boston, where they would receive expedited work visas and housing assistance, but once they got on the plane, they were sent to Martha’s Vineyard instead. Subsequent to my writing, Judd Legum obtained a brochure he claims the immigrants were given, which promised eight months of job assistance, housing, and food in Massachusetts.
People calling on Republicans to be held legally accountable for their actions is Turley’s Hack Signal, so Turley responded to all of this by attacking me and others, like California Governor Gavin Newsom, who brought up the prospect of legal action against DeSantis and his alleged co-conspirator, Texas Governor Greg Abbott. This is essentially the first line in the Trumpian law profs handbook: attack the people arguing for accountability, instead of defending the immoral and bigoted behavior. People like Turley want to pretend they find state-sponsored bigotry as repulsive as normal folks do. They just don’t want normal folks to believe there’s anything we can do about it.
To do this, they have to purposefully misread the laws already on the books. We can see this willful ignorance in Turley’s column when he quotes the federal statute defining kidnapping, which occurs when an offender “unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person.” On the basis of this quote, he dismisses my argument and Newsom’s argument as “legally absurd.” “There is nothing unlawful in conveying individuals who are lawfully in the country pending their immigration hearings,” he writes. “The trips are voluntary, and most migrants appear eager to accept free passage to cities like New York or Chicago.”
This here is the second big trick of Trumpian legal analysis: describe a situation that would be lawful if it had happened, while ignoring the facts of the unlawful thing that actually happened. It would, indeed, be lawful to offer free transportation to Boston to people who consented to go on a “trip” to Boston. But that is not what happened here. These people did not consent. They were tricked, and we know they were tricked because they were told they were going somewhere different than where they were sent. Characterizing this as “voluntary” is like saying that people posting as Nigerian princes are receiving “voluntary” “donations” from Boomers everywhere.
The astute reader will note that Turley does not go into the legal definition of “inveigling” or “decoy,” words that are in the statute specifically to cover the use of false inducements to lure victims of kidnapping. The astute reader will also notice that Turley changed the cities involved: Places like New York and Chicago are major cities, well-known internationally, where immigrants might well expect services and community support upon their arrival. Some immigrants might indeed be “eager” to accept free passage to New York or Chicago, or even Boston.
Martha’s Vineyard, where these 48 people were actually sent, is a different place entirely. It’s a small, seasonal island resort community accessible only by plane or boat. There’s no reasonable expectation that immigrants will find an extensive community of immigrants there, if these people had even heard of the place before they landed in it.
In fairness, any law professor who wants to be appointed to the judiciary by a Republican president can and does engage in this bad-faith sleight-of0-hand these days. But Turley, who has aged out of such adventures, is even willing to do something more insidious. Note how he says that voluntary conveyances are lawful if the individuals are “lawfully in the country pending their immigration hearings.”
Again, sure, in theory. But we all know that whether these people are “lawfully” in the country as asylum seekers is a matter of some dispute, because the Republican Party that Turley is eager to protect does not abide by international human rights conventions or treat people seeking asylum as lawful visitors deserving of fair treatment and dignity. The implication from Turley’s sentence is that if immigrants are deemed to be “unlawfully” present in the country, they can be shipped against their will to wherever the Republican governors want. Moreover, Boston immigration attorney Rachel Self says that the immigrants were purposefully given false addresses in the United States, which could be used as a pretext to rule their presence “illegal,” thus subjecting them to the worst people like Turley can think of to do with them.
I’m not sure what law students at George Washington University are supposed to learn from this. That they should make up fact patterns that don’t exist when defending odious positions? That the law is feckless in the face of a determined fascist? I mean, if students just want to go to law school to learn how to be a Trump judge, I feel like ASSlaw at George Mason is doing it better, and with a more direct hook-up to Republican clerkships.
I am sure about what Turley is trying to do, and that is to defend the despicable without having the courage to own it. You can see that too in his double-speak. “There are good-faith reasons to oppose these trips as a political stunt. That does not make them federal crimes,” he writes. “The effort to bend and twist the criminal code for such political purposes is a dangerous trend. You can denounce these transfers without trying to criminalize such policies.”
You’ll note he says that one can denounce these acts, without actually denouncing them himself. This has become standard operating procedure for a legion of legal academics who want to stay on the good side of Trumpworld, without owning all of the gross and fascist acts its luminaries commit. These people aren’t teaching students how to do legal analysis. They’re teaching kids how to be intellectual cowards by obfuscating the law instead of wrestling with it.