Donald Trump has vowed to give human traffickers the death penalty if Americans put him back in the White House. His remarks came after a screening of “Sound of Freedom,” a film about child sex trafficking, at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, last week. In attendance was a clique of influencers and hangers-on, like Kari Lake, the failed candidate for governor of Arizona.
But Trump has a record on the issue, and it belies his tough talk. As president, he oversaw a significant decline in the number of federal prosecutions for child sex trafficking.
Under his administration, 43 percent of criminal referrals for child sex trafficking resulted in charges being brought by federal prosecutors, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a non-partisan research organization at Syracuse University. That figure was down from both the Bush (46 percent) and Obama (49 percent) administrations.
The screening in Bedminster was ultimately more about promoting Trump’s candidacy than the movie and, perhaps, distracting from his failure to tackle the issue at the heart of the summer box office hit. He promised to visit swift justice upon wrongdoers in his own thriller of a campaign policy video released shortly after the viewing.
“When I am back in the White House, I will immediately end the Biden border nightmare that traffickers are using to exploit vulnerable women and children,” he said. “I will urge Congress to ensure that anyone caught trafficking children across our border receives the death penalty immediately.”
The video was circulated by Trump-aligned figures across social media and presented, on the one hand, as evidence of his populist instincts: as soon as an issue is brought to Trump’s attention, he does not hesitate to jump in the saddle to take bold and decisive action. On the other hand, it was a nod to the Pizzagate and QAnon lore that put those who partake on a road that ends with Trump confronting a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
But in order to believe any of that – even the parts at the extremities – you have to pretend Trump did not already occupy the White House and wield the vast power of the presidency. He did, though, and TRAC’s analysis shows child sex traffickers were less likely to be prosecuted in federal court under him than his immediate predecessors.
“Comparing the last three presidential administrations, not only were the number of prosecutions higher during the Obama years, but the proportion of criminal referrals for child sex trafficking on which charges were brought was also higher,” TRAC concluded.
During the Bush administration, 46 percent of criminal referrals were prosecuted. That proportion increased to 49 percent under the Obama administration, a trend that continued into the beginning of Trump’s tenure before plummeting, with prosecutors filing charges in 43 percent of cases, according to TRAC’s October 2020 report.
TRAC’s findings align with what Trump’s State Department published in its June 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report: “The government increased the number of investigations, but the number of prosecutions decreased for the second year in a row, and the number of convictions decreased.”
How frequently are children involved in these cases? According to the Human Trafficking Institute, they consistently account for over half of the victims. The group’s Federal Human Trafficking Report shows that although more cases were filed in 2020 than in 2019, the number of defendants charged fell, while federal courts convicted the lowest number of defendants in human trafficking cases in 2020 since 2012.
Besides a few gestures, Trump didn’t do much to fight human trafficking as president or actually undermined the cause.
There are anti-trafficking advocates who argue that some of Trump’s policies made it harder for victims to come forward to provide evidence against their abusers. James Gates, an expert in human trafficking and a sociology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation, believes there was a general lack of resources and interest devoted to tackling the issue.
“I can only think it’s a distraction of [the Justice Department] to focus on other things,” he told The Legal Examiner in November 2020. “In rhetoric, it’s their priority, but not in practice, which tends to be a hallmark of this administration.”
Indeed, despite his anti-trafficking rhetoric, Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, proposed cutting by nearly 80 percent the budget of the International Labor Affairs Bureau, which is charged with combating human trafficking and child labor in the U.S. and abroad.
Acosta was forced to resign from the Trump administration when it resurfaced in 2019 that, as a U.S. attorney in Florida, he allowed the child-trafficking kingpin Jeffrey Epstein to sign a non-prosecution agreement in 2008. The Miami Herald reported that the plea deal granted immunity from prosecution to suspected Epstein co-conspirators. Acosta had also withheld the terms of the agreement from more than 30 victims.
Trump defended and praised Acosta amid renewed scrutiny after Epstein’s arrest in July 2019 on sex trafficking charges, saying he had been “excellent” and a “very good secretary of labor.” It was also around that time that it came to light that Trump once hosted a party at his Mar-a-Lago estate with just Epstein and scores of girls.
A key part of Trump’s political rise to prominence was his willingness to say things others weren’t willing to say and talk about controversial issues. Child trafficking became central to Trumpian lore that finds its sources in things like the QAnon movement, which Trump has not explicitly acknowledged but constantly winks at. It symbolized his supposed lone stand against cruel elites responsible for everything from job offshoring to mass immigration. They “feast” on children as they feast on American political, cultural, moral, and economic capital.
There is a kernel of truth to the latter. Who would doubt America’s ruling class is reckless and detached from much of the country? The failure of other politicians to address the legitimate grievances of Americans created an opening for Trump, who took that kernel and stretched it into complete absurdity with him as the winking ringmaster. Instead of solutions, he delivered a carnival sideshow that was more outlandish than anything on the silver screen, reducing issues like child trafficking to props, fodder for the content churn and little else.
Republicans got entertainment instead of meaningful action on this issue the last go-round. The question is whether they want to see that movie again.
Pedro L. Gonzalez is the politics editor at Chronicles and author of the Contra Substack.