President Barack Obama appeared to be taking a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook Wednesday when he seemed to declare the suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed guilty and deserving of the death penalty. In Nixon’s case, he pronounced cult leader Charles Manson guilty of several murders while Manson was being tried in a California state court for killing actress Sharon Tate and others.
Here’s what happened. In an interview, the president had this exchange with Chuck Todd of NBC:
TODD: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – can you understand why it is offensive to some for this terrorist to get all the legal privileges of any American citizen?
OBAMA: I don’t think it will be offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.
TODD: But having that kind of confidence of a conviction – I mean one of the purposes of doing – going to the Justice Department and not military court is to show of the the world our fairness in our court system.
OBAMA: Well —
TODD: But you also just said that he was going to be convicted and given the death penalty.
OBAMA: Look – what I said was people will not be offended if that’s the outcome. I’m not pre-judging; I’m not going to be in that courtroom, that’s the job of prosecutors, the judge and the jury.
The RN remark came on August 3, 1970. He was criticizing the media for glamorizing criminals, and used Manson as an example:
I noted, for example, the coverage of the Charles Manson case when I was in Los Angeles, front page every day in the papers. It usually got a couple of minutes in the evening news. Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.
Ron Ziegler immediately retracted the remark, noting that RN had intended to say “alleged.” But the comment caused big problems for the prosecution — as Obama’s remark probably will.
There are a couple of differences. Nixon admitted error. At a press conference several months later, a reporter asked him about the Manson trial and other cases in which he suggested that criminal defendants were guilty. “I think sometimes we lawyers, even like doctors who try to prescribe for themselves, may make mistakes. And I think that kind of comment probably is unjustified. ” Obama, by contrast, insisted that “when” really means “if.”
Also, the text of Nixon’s original comment was (and is) available on the public record. But the Obama White House, unlike its immediate predecessors, does not routinely post interview transcripts. To find them, one must search online in other places. And as any Googler knows, things often disappear from the web.