When former President Donald Trump sought to overthrow the 2020 election three years ago, one of his central claims was that certain places could not be trusted to fairly count votes. He specifically focused on large cities that happened to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats and had significant populations of minority voters, describing them in harsh terms. “Detroit and Philadelphia are known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country—easily,” he claimed in 2020. “They cannot be responsible for engineering the outcome of a presidential race.”
Some of Trump’s many failed lawsuits to invalidate votes also targeted cities with large Black populations, including Atlanta and Milwaukee. Special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment last week did not specifically allege racism on Trump’s part in these efforts. The former president was nonetheless charged with conspiring to violate Americans’ voting rights under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was originally enacted during Reconstruction to help protect freed Black Americans in the South from voter suppression.
In a similar vein, Trump currently does not want to be tried in Washington, D.C., for allegedly organizing a coup attempt in that city. “THERE IS NO WAY I CAN GET A FAIR TRIAL WITH THE JUDGE ‘ASSIGNED’ TO THE RIDICULOUS FREEDOM OF SPEECH/FAIR ELECTIONS CASE,” he wrote on his personal social media website over the weekend, in reference to Judge Tanya Chutkan, whose recusal from the case he also seeks. “EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS, AND SO DOES SHE! WE WILL BE IMMEDIATELY ASKING FOR RECUSAL OF THIS JUDGE ON VERY POWERFUL GROUNDS, AND LIKEWISE FOR VENUE CHANGE, OUT IF [sic] D.C.”
John Lauro, one of Trump’s lawyers, hammered that point in media interviews over the last week. “We’re looking for a jury that will be more balanced,” he told NPR last week. “And West Virginia was a state that was more evenly divided.” Trump had also called for the trial to be moved to West Virginia, describing the state that he won in 2020 as “politically unbiased” in comparison to the nation’s capital. Lauro also told CBS over the weekend that he wanted a “diverse venue, a diverse jury” that “reflects the characteristics of the American people.” He did not clarify what those characteristics might be.
The common thread here is a core feature of Trumpism: Only Americans with certain “characteristics,” to borrow a word from Trump’s lawyer, can be trusted to exercise basic civic duties. Others cannot be trusted to serve on a jury, to vote or count ballots in a presidential election, or to oversee a criminal case involving Trump himself. Sometimes, but not always, this divide happens to fall along racial lines.
In general terms, it is unsurprising that Trump would prefer to be tried in West Virginia (or almost anywhere else, for that matter) over the District of Columbia. The nation’s capital isn’t exactly filled with Trump supporters. Trump received only 5.4 percent of the vote in the district in 2020 compared to Joe Biden’s whopping 92 percent. In West Virginia, Trump got roughly two-thirds of the vote. D.C. is also among the nation’s most diverse cities, with Black residents making up a plurality of its population. On the other hand, 93 percent of West Virginians identified themselves as white in the 2020 census.
Courts do sometimes grant motions to change the venue of a trial out of fairness to the defendant. The trials for Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were held in Denver, for example, after a federal judge cited intense newspaper and television coverage throughout Oklahoma in the aftermath of the 1996 bombing. A California judge infamously changed the venue for the trials of four LAPD officers charged with beating Black motorist Rodney King to nearby Simi Valley, which has a higher proportion of white residents than the rest of the city. The officers’ acquittal led to citywide riots in 1992.
But venue changes are relatively rare, even in high-profile cases. It is a common misconception that O.J. Simpson successfully changed his trial venue to downtown Los Angeles, where the jury pool was more racially diverse and would be, it was correctly assumed, more favorable to him than in the neighborhood where the murders were committed. But L.A. prosecutors actually filed the charges in downtown L.A. instead of Brentwood from the start. District Attorney Gil Garcetti later claimed that earthquake damage to the Santa Monica courthouse influenced the decision.
But there are recent high-profile criminal cases where venue changes did not occur. Robert Gregory Bowers, the gunman who killed 11 people in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, unsuccessfully sought to have the case relocated elsewhere. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faced federal charges for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, also failed to have his case moved out of eastern Massachusetts. Judges in major American cities appear to be more reluctant to allow venue changes, apparently believing that their jurisdiction’s size will still make it possible to find enough qualified jurors.
But Trump’s efforts are not really about finding unbiased jurors to fairly hear his case. If anything, his incentive is to find biased jurors in his direction, since it would only take one of them to result in a mistrial. Trump has always viewed his legal troubles primarily as a set of political problems, all of which have primarily political solutions. Until this year, this has worked for him fairly well—he’s paid no real price for painting prosecutors, investigators, and judges as his political enemies and rallying his supporters against them. To that end, Trump has repeatedly sought to delay the trials in his ongoing criminal cases until after the presidential election next year. He apparently hopes a victory would allow him to direct the Justice Department to drop the federal cases and raise constitutional barriers to further proceedings in New York and Georgia.
Trump’s particular frustration with D.C. fits within a larger current of hostility toward self-government for the nation’s capital in conservative circles. House Republicans successfully led an effort earlier this year to repeal a major criminal-code rewrite by the D.C. City Council, undermining home rule for a city that already lacks the basic power to elect a voting member of Congress. As I noted at the time, there was an uncomfortable racial aspect to that dispute, which hinged on broader anxieties about crime and came as Republicans sought to limit Black electoral power in other ways and places. Trump himself is venomous when it comes to D.C. proper: In a statement after last week’s indictment, he described driving through D.C. and supposedly seeing “the filth and the decay and all of the broken buildings and walls and the graffiti” since he left office.
His plan to disqualify Chutkan is also unlikely to succeed. We’ve been here before: One of Trump’s first major controversies as the likely GOP nominee involved consumer fraud lawsuits over his Trump University program. In the summer of 2016, Trump told rallygoers that Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge in California, couldn’t fairly oversee the case against him because he was a “hater” and a “Mexican,” citing Trump’s campaign pledge to build the wall. (Curiel was born in Indiana.) He received widespread criticism for the racist remarks and later partially backtracked on them. It is worth noting at this point that Chutkan was born in Jamaica.
There does not appear to be any justifiable grounds for Chutkan’s recusal, though in fairness, Trump has not yet filed a motion laying out his reasons for doing so. But there are good reasons to be skeptical of these claims by default. Trump’s hostility toward judges who rule against him is well known at this point. He frequently derided judges who ruled against him as president as biased and partisan with no evidence to support those claims. In one famous instance, Chief Justice John Roberts publicly defended the federal judiciary from Trump’s verbal attacks by declaring there are not “Obama judges or Trump judges.”
Those attacks on judges weren’t always rooted in racialized language; Trump was often hostile to white judges who ruled against him as well. (Roberts himself might be the best example of this.) But Trump often speaks differently when the target of his criticism is from a particular racial background. When he attacks the special counsel, for example, it’s because of what Jack Smith does. “DERANGED JACK SMITH AND OUR HIGHLY PARTISAN, AND VERY CORRUPT, DEPARTMENT OF INJUSTICE, COULD HAVE BROUGHT THIS BIDIN [sic] ‘OPPONENT’ CASE YEARS AGO, BUT CHOSE TO WAIT AND BRING IT RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF MY ELECTION CAMPAIGN,” he wrote in a typical recent post on Truth Social.
When he attacks Black voters in Detroit and Philadelphia, or hypothetical jurors who might adjudicate his guilt, or judges of color who oversee his trials, it’s because of who they inherently are. This position is, among many other things, a somewhat self-defeating one. Had Trump recognized in 2020 that all Americans are equally capable of carrying out their civic duties, he would not be on trial in 2023 for allegedly conspiring to deny them their constitutional rights. At any rate, it remains the case that one of the best ways to avoid the judgment of a jury of D.C. residents is to simply not foment a coup d’état in that jurisdiction.