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Less presidential talk, more action on Trayvon

At Monday's White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney was asked to comment on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and the ongoing investigation into his shooting. Carney made it clear that the White House was aware of the case, expressed sympathies to Trayvon's family, but was careful to defer to the Justice Department and local law enforcement.

Then Carney was asked a follow-up question:

Q:   Has the President himself expressed any comments about it?  I mean, the case of Professor Gates up in Cambridge pales compared to this, and the President did speak out about that. MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any conversations to report to you.

For those that don't recall, "the case of Professor Gates up in Cambridge" refers to the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest, for breaking and entering his own home after the professor had been spotted by a neighbor struggling with a jammed front door. That led to the now-(in)famous "Beer Summit," the nickname given to a meeting the President staged between himself, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and the police officer who'd arrested Gates.

Now, bringing that up in relation to Trayvon Martin might have broken records for false equivalence. But it got me to thinking about what the President said a week before the "Beer Summit," in a press conference:

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.  That's just a fact.

As you may recall, the President's words above, while on point, only exacerbated the controversy, and put the focus on him -- rather than on the incident's systematic problems and faulty judgment.

For years, I've wondered how much a president's words can help, hurt, or matter at all. Ezra Klein made a potent argument recently in the New Yorker about the ineffectiveness of presidential speech in policy matters; what the White House's relative silence on this reveals they've learned that it doesn't much help when it comes to local crime investigations.

Late Monday, as promised, they let the FBI and the Department of Justice do the talking:

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have opened an investigation into the "facts and circumstances" surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed last month by a neighborhood watch captain in an Orlando suburb. The department will "conduct a thorough and independent review of all evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation," according to a statement...

This is not to say that words from others aren't important. The NAACP held the first of a few upcoming protests last night, including one led by MSNBC's own Rev. Al Sharpton, planned for Thursday. But having had no faith in the investigation being conducted by the Sanford, FL police department -- and arguably, having had good reason to have so little faith -- Trayvon Martin's family called for action, not words, from Washington. It appears they will get just that.

We'll have more on this on our blog throughout the week -- but check out the Orlando Sentinel and Huffington Post reporter Trymaine Lee, who's been covering Trayvon's case longer and better than anyone.

 (An update, after the jump.)


Update: Zerlina Maxwell, writing in the Grio today, brings even more historical precedent to bear in making a similar argument -- President Obama should remain silent on Trayvon Martin's case:

"It is important that the president not appear to have prejudged [the case]," says attorney B.J. Bernstein in an interview with theGrio. Bernstein has represented Genarlow Wilson and most recently two of the plaintiffs in the civil suit related to sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Eddie Long. In 2005, at the age of 17, Genarlow Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation for receiving oral sex from a consenting classmate who was 15 years old at the time. Wilson was imprisoned for two years before Bernstein won his release. Wilson's long imprisonment created a similar public outcry to the Martin case and calls for political figures to weigh in and call for Wilson's release, including then President George W. Bush. Bernstein emphasized that any case, whether state or federal, will either be "The State" versus George Zimmerman or "The United States" versus George Zimmerman, so public comments from the president "would be seen as interference" with a law enforcement matter. Furthermore, Bernstein disagrees with some critics and commenters who have argued that since President Obama called and offered his support to Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, he should also comment on the Trayvon Martin case. "Sandra Fluke's testimony before Congress was [related to] a law [The Affordable Care Act], and her testimony was meant to affect [a conversation about] policy," Bernstein added.