When President Donald Trump huddled with campaign aides in the late spring to discuss his bid for reelection, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner told his father-in-law he should highlight last year’s historic passage of the First Step Act – a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that eluded previous administrations and has earned celebrity support.
Kushner reiterated the positive selling points of that bill during the Oval Office meeting as Trump campaign officials and White House aides ticked through the president’s achievements, wondering which would resonate most with his adoring base. But Trump wasn’t interested and told Kushner he didn’t think his core voters would care much about a bipartisan deal for which he’s since accused Democrats of trying to steal credit.
“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.”
Kushner, whose own father spent more than a year in federal prison, worked closely with Democratic and Republican senators to get the criminal justice reform bill over the finish line last year – often telling his tough-on-crime boss it was worth expending political capital to seize a rare opportunity to overcome the deeply partisan divide on Capitol Hill and solidify his image as a pragmatic dealmaker.
But now, Trump “is telling people he’s mad” at how criminal justice reform has panned out, according to a person close to the president. “He’s really mad that he did it. He’s saying that he’s furious at Jared because Jared is telling him he’s going to get all these votes of all these felons.”
Indeed, for months, the president has glossed over his son-in-law’s signature legislative achievement at his campaign rallies. If he brings up criminal justice reform, it’s almost always to mock his predecessors for their inability to get it done. Otherwise, as he did at his three most recent campaign events, he skips over it entirely, indulging in long-winded rants about unresolved issues like trade and immigration instead of plugging one of the few bipartisan triumphs of his administration.
The subject’s notable absence from Trump’s 2020 stump speech offers a raw look at the president’s political instincts, which strongly veer toward partisan fights and away from the soaring appeals to national unity of past White House incumbents. And it lacks appeal to his base of rural and older white voters, who often respond better to hard-line rhetoric on the topic of law and order.
The nub of the issue for Trump, say White House officials, congressional aides and friends of the president, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly on the matter, is that he no longer sees criminal justice reform as a résumé booster heading into 2020. He brings it up at official events, in response to reporters, and to religious groups — and it was a key part of Trump’s State of the Union address in January, when he welcomed home the first inmate to be released under the First Step Act — but it’s far from a permanent fixture of his reelection campaign.
“It would be difficult to say it’s a change of heart. I don’t think his heart was ever really in it,” said one White House official, adding that some Trump aides questioned why the president — who once declared himself “the law and order candidate” — endorsed the First Step Act in the first place.
White House staffers have remarked to one another on the irony that Trump wants to give the death penalty to criminals like drug smugglers, but also supported legislation that would greenlight the early release of some non-violent drug offenders.
In response to this story, a White House official said, “This false premise is another convoluted contradictory, media-manufactured joke. The president is clearly proud of all of his record-setting accomplishments – including the landmark bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform that data shows will save money, reduce crime and make communities safer.”
During the Oval Office meeting this spring, Trump complained that Democratic co-sponsors of the First Step Act skipped the bill signing at the White House last December (Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island., was the only Democrat to attend) and have refused to give him credit for passing prison reform when his immediate predecessor couldn’t, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting. He’s said as much publicly in recent days, writing in a tweet earlier this month: “I got it done with a group of Senators & others who would never have gone for it. Obama couldn’t come close.”
The tweet came after NBC’s Lester Holt omitted any mention of Trump’s role in advancing criminal justice reform during a televised town hall on the network. The president felt the televised special was disingenuous and thought singer John Legend, who participated in it, “paraded himself out like he was the great savior of criminal justice reform,” according to a senior administration official.
Trump has also complained privately about Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who worked with Kushner to pass criminal justice reform in the House, but has been critical of the president ever since. Jeffries, who chairs the House Democratic caucus, called Trump “the grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in January.
“He’s been telling Jared, ‘I got nothing from that,’” a person close to the White House said of criminal justice reform, adding that the president feels duped by claims that his popularity has grown and that he is frustrated with Kushner’s attempts to “jawbone” the issue into every speech he delivers.
“Jared has got all these stats like ‘every rapist in Florida is now going to vote Republican,’” quipped the person close to Trump.
“Trump doesn’t believe it and he’s mad Jared sold him this thing,” the same person said. (The First Step Act only gives certain nonviolent offenders a chance to shorten their sentences, and excludes sex offenders from early release.)
Kushner has claimed publicly that more non-violent ex-felons in Florida, where they recently became eligible to vote, are registering as Republicans than as Democrats. In a rare television appearance in April, he told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that he found that statistic “very pleasing” and one “that will surprise a lot of people when they see the new coalition that President Trump is building.”
But it is unclear how Kushner and his team procured such data. As of March, more than 2,000 formerly incarcerated felons had registered to vote in Florida, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, which did not disclose the new registrants’ party affiliations. An aide to Kushner did not provide details on the source of the data in time for publication.
Some Trump allies argue that Kushner, who continues to monitor implementation of the First Step Act, is unlikely to persuade media personalities and Democratic lawmakers who support either to credit Trump with working across the aisle to get the measure passed.
“Jones was happy with Trump for a day. That’s all Trump got,” said the person close to Trump, referring to the liberal CNN pundit and former Obama adviser, who once described the First Step Act as “a Christmas miracle.” Jones did attend a White House summit on prison reform this April – months after the bill passed – and recently met with Kushner to discuss its impact.
Jones, who cofounded the bipartisan criminal justice reform nonprofit #cut50, noted that he’s continued to sing Trump’s praises on the topic, including in a recent interview with CNN where he celebrated Trump’s role in signing the First Step Act into law. He said he received “a very positive” direct message from the president afterwards, “saying he was proud of what I had said.”
“There’s always been a bunch of people in the building, they didn’t like it before, during or after, and they’ve always been able to leak out anonymous bullshit quotes that then very quickly have egg on their faces because Trump does something else positive in this direction of throws in another line in a speech,” said Jones, who confirmed that Trump has been frustrated with the lack of credit he’s received.
“The only thing that’s disappointing to President Trump here is the same media, political pundits and elected officials that talked about the vital importance of criminal justice reform for decades fell silent and refused to give credit to the only one who was able to deliver: Donald Trump,” the White House official countered.
Some Trump allies worry that the more the president talks about criminal justice reform, the more vulnerable he becomes if a prisoner released early under the restructured sentencing guidelines is ever accused of committing another crime. When Republicans battled over criminal justice reform last fall, a small group of conservative senators who ultimately opposed the bill warned Trump of the dire consequences he could face if an inmate who won early release became a repeat offender.
“You let people out of jail early, commute sentences, something bad happens because of this effort [and] it’s going to be one more egg on their face – or even worse, blood on their hands,” said a former Senate Republican staffer.
Another GOP aide pointed to a negative ad campaign Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone recently launched against Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards over his support for statewide sentencing reform. The ad accuses Edwards of putting “dangerous” and “violent” ex-felons “back on our streets where they robbed, attacked, [and] murdered.” A person familiar with the ad buy said it was prompted by the September arrest of a Louisiana man on burglary charges who was released early last year as part of a parole reform bill passed by the state legislature in 2016.
“Any smart political person would not go out bragging that they let criminals out of jail,” the GOP aide said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine