Politico

Trump says impeachment has given him experience with broken criminal justice system

COLUMBIA, S.C. — President Donald Trump on Friday told a criminal justice forum at a historically black college that the impeachment investigation has given him a greater understanding of those incarcerated or unfairly prosecuted.

Apparently claiming his innocence in light of a deepening impeachment probe, Trump vowed to “ensure that our justice system is fair for every single American.”

And he suggested toward the end of his address at Benedict College that his experience with investigations throughout his presidency made him more aware of the plight of those at risk of being unfairly treated by the criminal justice system.

“You know I have my own experience, you know that,” he said. “You see what’s going on with the witch hunt. It’s a terrible thing that’s going on in our country — no crimes — it’s an investigation in search of a crime.”

The comparison came after Trump caused a furor earlier this week by comparing the impeachment inquiry to a “lynching.” Tishaura Jones, the Democratic co-chair of the host group, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, earlier condemned his comments as being “in poor taste” and “inflammatory,” but the group didn’t disinvite Trump from delivering his speech at the historically black college.

Trump used much of his address to defend his signature criminal justice reform law, after traveling down to South Carolina for a speech tailored to appeal to African American voters ahead of his reelection campaign.

In remarks at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, a title that alluded to the landmark criminal justice reform legislation he signed into law last year, the First Step Act, the president acknowledged that criminal justice was not “initially” a pillar of his first campaign.

But he told the audience that once he took office, he heard from — and was sold on the idea — by religious, local and law enforcement leaders who implored him to tackle injustices in the criminal justice system “on behalf of this forgotten community.”

The president used much of his remarks to applaud local politicians in attendance at the event, and stepped aside multiple times to allow for a few words from several attendees who had been released from prison as a result of the First Step Act. He also brought up Alice Johnson, who was released from prison after intervention from Kim Kardashian West.

“I’m standing here today saying this is what a second chance looks like,” she told the audience.

The president was awarded the Bipartisan Justice Award at the top of his speech, telling the audience later that the prize would sit at a “very high level” in the Oval Office.

Trump touted his efforts to assemble “a historic coalition” of lawmakers last year to shepherd the First Step Act through Congress, an effort headed in the White House by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. “We had them so liberal you couldn’t believe it and so conservative you couldn’t believe it,” Trump said of congressional supporters of the bill.

Kushner attended the speech and could be seen at the side of the room applauding frequently throughout Trump’s remarks.

Trump was also accompanied on the trip by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who had previously represented a South Carolina district in Congress, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), social media director Dan Scavino and Rep. Ralph Norman.

The conference will hear this weekend from a number of Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Trump has been making a hard play to get African Americans to vote for him next year, even though he received only 8 percent of that group’s vote in 2016. Late this past summer, the Trump campaign quietly reached out to prominent African Americans about joining a coalition to help increase Republican support in the black community.

Trump’s campaign is telling African Americans they should disregard the president’s inflammatory rhetoric and instead focus on the strong economy, the passage of criminal justice reform, record low unemployment among African Americans and the creation of Opportunity Zones designed to increase investment in poorer cities.

Trump touted many of these accomplishments on Friday in a broader pitch to African American voters.

He finished his remarks by recalling a pitch he made to African American voters ahead of the 2016 election: “I’m gonna say it: Vote for me. What the hell do you have to lose?” he asked.

That environment, he suggested, aided the effectiveness of the First Step Act. He argued that higher rates of unemployment can be a barrier to re-entering society from prisonand that the availability of jobs could lower rates of recidivism.

Other efforts to attract African American voters have taken the form of numerous events at the White House in recent months. In September, Trump told leaders of historically black colleges and universities that his administration’s commitment to helping them was “bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration by far.” And earlier this month, Trump also held an event with almost 300 young black supporters at the White House who broke out into chants of “four more years!”

But such efforts come as one Quinnipiac University poll showed in July that 80 percent of African American voters believe Trump is a racist. Trump’s attacks this summer on four freshman congresswomen of color and his barbs against the late House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, in which he called Baltimore a “rodent infested mess” haven’t helped matters. In the first year of his administration, he was universally condemned for saying there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white nationalists who had marched in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump has expressed doubts about the political benefits of his criminal justice reform efforts. He privately told campaign advisers late this spring that he wasn’t interested in talking about the reform law because he didn’t think it has resonated with his base. “It was clear he thinks it’s a total dud,” said a person familiar with the meeting. “He made it abundantly clear he doesn’t think it’s worth talking about.” He’s also has accused Democrats of trying to steal credit for the bill.

On Friday, he appeared to allude to that sentiment, telling the audience that he was still unsure whether pushing the First Step Act was the politically popular thing to do. “But I know it was the right thing,” he said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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