It’s hard to recall a post-disaster interview worse than Scott Israel’s train wreck this week with CNN’s Jake Tapper, when the Broward County sheriff hailed his own “amazing leadership” after the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Fla.; insisted he could “only take responsibility for what I knew about”; and when asked if his department could have prevented the tragedy, bizarrely responded: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.”
Israel, a career cop who has served as an undercover narcotics officer and a SWAT commander, stepped right into a nasty partisan fight: He has become a shiny ball used by Republicans to distract the public and change a politically awkward subject—in this case, the debate over gun restrictions after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. A Fox News headline neatly summarized: “Sheriff Scott Israel Battling Calls to Resign As Blame Shifts in Wake of Florida School Shooting.”
This kind of misdirection has become a familiar pattern under master blame-shifter President Donald Trump: Antifa after Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter after Ferguson, and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama after just about every new development in the Russia investigation. But this time, Israel really does seem to deserve some blame, and really has displayed ineptitude and arrogance in public. He’s the perfect foil—a mouthy, pugnacious Democrat who isn’t known for deep thinking before he starts speaking.
“The Republicans needed a shiny-ball guy to get away from assault weapons, and the sheriff was like: Hey, I’ll be your shiny-ball guy!” an elected Democrat from South Florida told me. “At first, it looked like the kids would be the shiny-ball guy, but everyone loved the kids. Then Scott led with his chin, and here we are.”
Israel was a Republican until he decided to run for office in Florida’s most Democratic county, and he is in some ways an unusual target for the right—a rough-edged, old-school street cop who started as a patrol officer 39 years ago. He now leads a department with 5,400 employees and a $500 million budget, but one colleague described him to me as low-tech and proud of it. He’s joked that a CSI team would never find his fingerprints on his computer keyboard.
That said, he’s a cop with a Broward County twist. He’s the first Jewish sheriff in Florida history. He was outspoken about gun control long before Parkland, and he’s emphasized diversity and progressive policing techniques like body cameras and a civil citation program for juveniles; the Florida Sheriffs Association website quotes him saying he’ll measure success “by the number of kids we keep out of jail, not the number we put in jail.” In his first term, violent crime dropped 14 percent in his jurisdiction, while burglaries dropped 55 percent.
Like many of his Broward County predecessors—including a bootlegger, a convicted tax evader, and the star of the first season of COPS—Israel is a colorful political character. When he came under fire for stashing political supporters on his payroll, he asked: “What have I done differently than Don Shula, or Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, or Gandhi?” His response to criticism was straight out of Game of Thrones: “Lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep.”
It’s easy to detect echoes of President Trump in Israel’s blustery self-congratulation, outer-borough New York accent and tough-guy denunciation of his deputy who hunkered outside the school during the shooting. Israel and Trump even share a political adviser: the dirty trickster Roger Stone, who actually worked for Israel’s opponent when he first ran for sheriff in 2008, and helped sink his candidacy with brutal negative ads. Stone later fell out with the Republican incumbent—he’s said he was horrified by a scandal involving the Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, although Stone isn’t exactly scandal-averse—so he switched sides when Israel ran again in 2012. Stone reportedly financed robocalls that purported to be from a Tea Party group urging support for Israel’s opponent—a shrewd way to get Democrats to the polls in Broward. Israel was easily reelected in 2016, and the job looked like it would be his as long as he wanted it.
Then came Valentine’s Day, and Israel’s turn in the spotlight. Ever since he confronted National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch at a CNN forum, and warned at a candlelight vigil that politicians who don’t push for gun control “will not get reelected in Broward County,” his critics have portrayed him as a media-hungry political opportunist. A feature on NRA TV was headlined: “Scott Israel Is a Politician, Not a Sheriff.” Pirro accused him of “deflecting the outrage and fury that should have been directed at you, by going after the NRA.” Richard Corcoran, the Republican speaker of the Florida House and a candidate for governor, wrote a letter calling for his ouster, and 73 Republican lawmakers signed it.
The critics argue that the sheriff’s office failed to prevent the shooting despite dozens of warnings about the shooter, then failed to stop the shooting once it was underway. Israel has not made a persuasive case that they’re wrong, quibbling instead over how many calls were made to his department and how many deputies failed to enter the school, while insisting that if mistakes were made they weren’t his responsibility. He’s vowed to fight for his job, denouncing Corcoran’s “shameful, politically motivated letter,” and he’s helped his critics steer the national debate towards timelines and scanner traffic, transparency and leadership. If anything, he’s helping to deflect that “outrage and fury” away from the NRA. “No law-abiding American’s Second Amendment rights should be diluted or compromised before we know exactly what happened from the moment that first distress call came into the Broward’s Sheriff’s Office,” Ingraham told her viewers.
Really, though, the legality or accessibility of assault weapons throughout the United States shouldn’t depend on the precise tick-tock of what happened inside Douglas High, or on whether there was probable cause to arrest Cruz before this particular shooting.
“Scott is the NRA’s Benghazi,” says one official in his department. “The truth doesn’t matter – it’s just something else to talk about. Anything but guns.”
This is the power of whatabout. Republicans don’t want to discuss the deportation of law-abiding Dreamers, but what about MS-13? The allegations about money laundering and influence peddling connected to the Trump White House are duly noted, but what about Solyndra? Sure, dozens of Trump aides lack security clearances, but what about Hillary’s emails? There will always be campus leftists and Kathy Griffins and groups like ACORN to play the role of the enemy. For now, it’s Israel’s turn.
There’s something unsettling about the pile-on, the rush by extremists like Alex Jones and Dinesh D’Souza to demonize a former volunteer Douglas High football coach, a careerlong public servant, the father of triplets who graduated from Douglas High. Even the account for the white nationalist Jack Posobiec’s unborn baby tweeted #ResignSheriffIsrael. If you got all your news from conservative media, you might think the sheriff was responsible for the massacre in Parkland. But Nikolas Cruz did that.
Still, Israel is responsible for his department, and his message has basically been that the buck doesn’t stop with him. It’s not a compelling message, and he hasn’t been a compelling messenger. That’s why he’s getting so much airtime.