Criminal Justice

Donald Trump Appears Clueless About the Criminal Justice Reform He Says He Supports

That could be dangerous for the policy's chances of success, as has been the case on other key policy issues during the Trump era.

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Andrew Harrer/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom

President Donald Trump stood before the media Wednesday afternoon and claimed to be "thrilled" to announce his support for a major rewrite of federal sentencing laws, potentially clearing the way for a bipartisan criminal justice package to make it's way through Congress.

Just don't ask him what's in the bill.

In an interview with Daily Caller reporters Saagar Enjeti and Benny Johnson, conducted the same day as that press conference, Trump had an opportunity to sell the FIRST STEP Act to a friendly audience. His argument for the bill boiled down to…the fact that some other people like it too.

"You know, a lot of people are backing it," said Trump. "Look at the people that are backing it. Even, you know, like Mike Lee, he votes against a lot of things and we respect Mike and Mike is backing it. We have a lot of people that are backing this."

Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah), of course, has long been an outspoken proponent of federal criminal justice reform. It's not that Lee's support is insignificant, but it's worrying that Trump apparently can't think of any better reason why The Daily Caller's mostly conservative audience—a group that may be skeptical about sentencing reform, and who might be swayed by the president—should back the bill.

Here's the exchange on criminal justice (and kudos to the Caller for releasing the full transcript of their interview):

THE DAILY CALLER: Sir, right now, in 2010 we saw several pieces of major legislation passed in a lame-duck Congress. What can we expect your and the Republican agenda to be in this Congress? Is it going to be an immigration fix? What about criminal justice reform? What are the two to three things you're looking at?

POTUS: We're working on many things. Criminal justice reform we're working on very hard. We have a meeting today, do you know about that? We have a meeting today.

THE DAILY CALLER: We heard about that.

POTUS: Get these two in, alright? I think we have a chance at that. We should be able to fix health care. We should be able—

THE DAILY CALLER: Just one second, sir, on that criminal justice bill. Is that the Jared Kushner-backed bill that you want to focus on?

POTUS: The answer is I'm looking at it very closely, okay? I am. It's a good thing. You know, Texas is backing it, if you look at Mississippi and Georgia and a lot of other places, they believe in it, those governors, and they're conservative people. Rick Perry's a big fan.

You know, a lot of people are backing it. Look at the people that are backing it. Even, you know, like Mike Lee, he votes against a lot of things and we respect Mike and Mike is backing it. We have a lot of people that are backing this.

The rest of the interview is more of the same: friendly, easy questions basically giving Trump free rein to talk about whatever he wants, followed by oblivious answers or complete non sequiturs—like when Trump responded to a question about immigration policy with a long rant against special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

This isn't new for Trump. It seems like almost every sit-down interview or press conference is followed by a series of articles (like this one!) questioning the president's grasp of basic facts, his understanding of federal policy, and his ability to communicate in complete sentences.

Trump's lack of specific policy knowledge should not stop lawmakers from passing this bill, which is a much-needed series of reforms aimed at reducing the population of federal prisons and putting an end to nonsensical lifetime sentences for drug offenses. If Trump's role in the process is reduced to that of cheerleader, that might be for the best.

And that's a shame, because there are plenty of really good arguments for the FIRST STEP Act. It would end the onerous "stacking" of firearm penalties that landed Weldon Angelos in jail for 55 years. As Reason's C.J. Ciaramella detailed Wednesday, it would also eliminate mandatory life sentences for drug offenses under a federal "three strikes" law, and would retroactively apply sentence reductions to crack cocaine offenders. As Trump himself said at the press conference on the same day as the Daily Caller interview, the bill would give ex-offenders another shot at life outside of prison, and "we're all better off when former inmates can reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens."

But the president's inability to campaign effectively for the bill's passage is a liability for reformers. This too is not new.

Even before taking office, it was widely known that Trump's policy views basically amounted to echoing "the words of whomever last spoke to him," as The Washington Post put it, citing Trump campaign officials, in July 2016. The last two years have done little to disprove that notion, as Trump's short attention span and fascination with cable news have left White House aides and national security advisers frustrated by the difficulty of getting him to sit still and pay attention. Perhaps the best singular example of Trump's struggle with the complexities of federal policymaking came when, in typical Trumpian stream-of-consciousness style, he said that repealing and replacing Obamacare was proving difficult because "nobody knew it could be so complicated."

So far, Trump's failure to grasp policy hasn't mattered too much. Republicans may have been able to pass some version of health care reform if there was a more hands-on approach from the White House, but that's far from a sure thing.

Criminal justice reform might be different. The Senate version of the FIRST STEP Act (a different version passed the House in May) is a bipartisan effort crafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D–Ill.). It's not necessarily an easy sell to the Republicans who control the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) does not appear willing to block the bill, but he has reportedly dispatched hardline conservative Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) to whip up opposition to it. Cotton and Grassley have already clashed on Twitter over the proposal, and other Republicans are pushing to hold hearings on the bill before it is brought to the floor—hearings that would become forums for law enforcement and other opponents of the bill to stoke fears about letting criminals loose on the streets.

With Democrats now in control the House, the bill's return to that chamber could be equally fraught. Many progressive voices in the liberal coalition want to see greater sentencing reforms that may cause conservatives to turn against it.

Getting from Wednesday's press conference to a bill signing will require a delicate balancing act. It may also require the president to make a stronger argument for the bill than merely knowing that "we have a meeting today" and "Mike is backing it." If he can't handle a softball question about why he's supporting the bill, how will Trump deal with real opposition?

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  1. I think he was trying to show he supports the bill because other people/entities support it not just his Jewish son in law because all Republicans are anti-Semitic.

  2. Trump is clueless about everything he supports, give him a break when he’s right on something.

    1. Yeah, a stopped clock doesn’t know it’s broken.

  3. Obama knew jack shit about Obamacare when he signed it.

    Didn’t seem to bother you.

    1. You realize the “But Obama!” whataboutism is just as stupid as the “But Bush!” whataboutism from progressives circa 2010 (or later)? It’s particularly dumb in this case as Boehm didn’t even write for Reason in 2010.

      1. Nah. Just seems funny that a President not being intimately familiar with every part of a bill is, suddenly, an issue now when, you know, it has not been before.

        1. Yea, right. Never before in history has a President been accused of being clueless.

          https://www.google.com/search?q=obama+clueless

        2. This isn’t about if Trump knows every detail of the bill. This is about if Trump even knows the basics of the bill.

  4. He’s doing stuff I like but

    ORANGE MAN BAD

    1. If you actually read the article, the point was that Trump’s cluelessness and indifference to policy makes it more difficult for this bill to actually become law. I’ll give him credit for signing this bill if it passes. I’m not going to pat him on the back at this point when nothing has been accomplished.

      1. Now now, you know the rules.

        Trump says something good:
        HEY REASON, WHY DON’T YOU GIVE TRUMP MORE CREDIT?? YOU’RE JUST FULL OF TDS!

        Trump says something stupid:
        HEY REASON, WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS OBSESSING OVER TRUMP?? YOU’RE JUST FULL OF TDS!

        1. What I’ve come to realize, from the Trump fanbois around here, who endlessly bitch and whine and moan about the coverage of Trump even though their team is winning, is that they don’t really want “fairness” or “objectivity” in how Trump is covered by Reason, or the media; what they really want is equal time. They want Trump to be fawned over by the media for 8 years like they perceive Obama was fawned over. They want mainstream news anchors to refer to Trump as “sort of a god” like what some of them did to Obama.

      2. Bills morph in conference, so it’s impossible to be for or against any Trump proposal out of the box. He inherited a pile of mush: a party soaking up booze and free lunches for over a decade with no rudder and a broken mast. For that reason alone, fishtailing was guaranteed.

    2. You’re absolutely right. It’s just mindless brainless TDS to expect the president to know basic facts about the policies that he himself claims to support.

  5. The president has the vocabulary of a 4 year-old.

    1. Does Trump having a clue or not matter to those who would benefit from it?

      1. Sorry about that Tony. It wasn’t meant to be under your post.

    2. How else is he expected to get through to progressives? It’s not like they’re typically capable of logical thinking.

      1. My significant other argues that he doesn’t have to clean up after himself because my bathroom was dirty once 15 years ago. That’s a better argument than yours.

      2. Yeah, it’s “progressives” he’s talking to, in a softball interview with The Daily Caller. Or ever.

  6. Legislators vote on and presidents sign bills they haven’t read. There is nothing new here.

    1. Even when they know what legislation says, they don’t know what it means.

      Representative Carolyn McCarthy wanted to ban barrel shrouds because they, along with pistol grips and high capacity “clips,” turn ordinary rifles into murder machines, but she didn’t know what they were.

      “I actually don’t know what a barrel shroud is. I’m assuming it’s a shoulder thing that goes up.”

      Well please save us from that.

      https://youtu.be/9rGpykAX1fo

  7. An executive being clueless about the law he’s signing worked in the case of ____________, and __________, _________, __________, ___________ and don’t forget _________.

  8. Do you all ever get tired of being made to look like asses?

    He keeps doing shit like this, you put out your endless stream of ‘he’s an idiot’ articles, and then a few days later there’s a blurb in the roundup, about how, while ‘the media’ was shrieking, Trump snuck something good through Congress.

    No mention that you were there shrieking with the rest of them though.

    1. Yes we know.

      When Trump says or does something stupid, we have to take him “seriously not literally” or whatever. Which is just another way of saying “give him the benefit of the doubt”.

      When Trump says or does something smart, we have to be effusive in our praise. Trump deserves all of the credit even if he had help from others. It was all Trump’s idea.

      Either way, Trump is off the hook. Because the standards are lower for Trump. Why? Because Trump.

    2. Do you all ever get tired of being made to look like asses?

      Do you?

      If this follows the usual pattern, Trump will be softly in favor of this bill, then opposed, then indifferent to its failure. All a product of his ignorance and gullibility.

      1. This is Trump trying to “sell” this bill the same way he might sell Trump Steaks or Trump U. “Lots of people love it! Trust me!”

    3. See what I mean?

      Neither of you is getting this.

      Jeff’s on his usual idiocy about watching and reacting to the words. Who cares, Jeff? What’s getting done?

      I don’t care what Trump says or tweets or does. What laws are getting passed? What actual actions are being taken? That’s where my attention is.

      And Simon, well. It’s just sad really. You’re so detached from reality that I have to applaud your being able to appear semi-coherent here. Good Job!

      When bad law is enacted–or looks to be about to be enacted. THAT’S when you react. Not when Trump’s in mumble-phase.

      And ESPECIALLY not when someone else is TELLING you to get hysterical.

  9. the president’s inability to campaign effectively for the bill’s passage is a liability for reformers. This too is not new.

    Mr. Boehm, how do you think politics gets done? Hint: not by explaining stuff to reporters. The action’s in the back room.

    This is the source of the complaints about Trump: He’s not a wonk. Therefore he’s opposed by his opponents, & not supported by the intellectuals who’d otherwise be on that side. But he gets it done.

    1. The more Trump supports and elucidates on something, the more likely the press is to make a fuss and oppose it.

      That’s why this administration has been as quite as mice on the big changes, and loud and ignorant on petty shit that makes the Dems look bad, like MS-13, the migrant caravan and Christine Blasey Ford.

  10. “Donald Trump Appears Clueless About the Criminal Justice Reform He Says He Supports”

    Reason appears clueless about their TDS.

    That Trump talked about who supported the bill simply does not imply that he is clueless about it.

    What a shitshow.

    1. “Trump’s lack of specific policy knowledge should not stop lawmakers from passing this bill, which is a much-needed series of reforms aimed at reducing the population of federal prisons and putting an end to nonsensical lifetime sentences for drug offenses.”

      More “much-needed reforms” brought to you by Trump and the Deplorables over the pants shitting hysterical opposition of Reason.

      You’re welcome.

      1. Yes we know.

        If Trump displays above-average knowledge of the policy that he himself supports, then Reason has TDS for not trumpeting their support as fulsomely as they should.

        If Trump displays below-average knowledge of the policy that he himself supports, then Reason has TDS for obsessing over Trump and not discussing the policy itself.

        Either way, it’s TDS. Amirite?

  11. “The rest of the interview is more of the same: friendly, easy questions basically giving Trump free rein to talk about whatever he wants, followed by oblivious answers or complete non sequiturs?like when Trump responded to a question about immigration policy with a long rant against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”

    Politician uses question as opportunity to talk about something unrelated he wanted to talk about, news at 11. I guess it is newsworthy, it’s not like it’s SOP for politicians of all stripes.

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