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.


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?