Announcing his plans to tackle the US’ opioid epidemic, the President said a tough stance was required because “toughness is the thing they most fear”.
Opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and synthetic drugs, killed more than 42,000 people in the US in 2016, the highest total ever recorded.
Mr Trump unveiled his plans in New Hampshire, a state that has been hard hit by the drug scourge.
The move represents the laying down of an early marker in the 45th President’s re-election campaign for 2020.
Mr Trump called for improved education about drug addiction, with greater access to treatment and recovery programmes.
But at the heart of his plan is much tougher punishments for drug traffickers.
“This is about winning a very, very tough problem and if we don’t get very tough on these dealers it’s not going to happen folks… I want to win this battle,” the President told the event in the city of Manchester.
Mr Trump has in the past spoken approvingly of other countries around the world that harshly punish drug dealers.
During a trip to Asia last year, he did not publicly condemn Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has authorised the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers.
Outside a local fire station that Mr Trump visited before his speech, someone compared the two leaders with a sign that read: “Donald J. Duterte.”
Mr Trump came in for criticism last year when leaked transcripts of a telephone call with Mexican President Enrique Nieto showed he had described New Hampshire as a “drug-infested den”.
In his address, the President said: “Drug traffickers kill so many thousands of our citizens every year.
“That’s why my Department of Justice will be seeking so many tougher penalties than we’ve ever had and we’ll be focusing on the penalties that I talked about previously for big pushers, the ones that are killing so many people, and that penalty is going to be the death penalty.”
He added: “Other countries don’t play games… But the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty.”
The federal death penalty is available for limited drug-related offences, according to the Justice Department, including violations of the “drug kingpin” provisions in federal law.
But there are questions as to whether bringing in the death penalty for drug traffickers, even for those whose product causes multiple deaths, would be constitutional.
Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, predicted the issue would end up at the US Supreme Court.
And the President’s plan came in for criticism from some Democrats.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said “we can’t arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic” and noted that “the war on drugs didn’t work in the 80s”.
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