Administration

Trump: No action on criminal justice reform before midterms

President Trump on Thursday threw cold water on a criminal-justice reform package being crafted in the Senate, according to an administration official familiar with the situation.

During a closed-door meeting at the White House, Trump said he has problems with the prison and sentencing overhaul and made it clear he wants to revisit the politically charged issue after November's midterm elections. 

"Trump said he opposes the idea of letting opioid traffickers get early release to home confinement or halfway houses, and he opposes reducing the mandatory minimum sentences for those offenses," the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss private conversations. 

Trump's decision came amid a huddle with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and senior adviser Jared Kushner at the White House. 

"We're pleased the president agreed we shouldn't support criminal justice reform that would reduce sentences, put drug traffickers back on streets, & undermine our law enforcement," Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.

Trump's stance dealt a blow to advocates of the compromise proposal on Capitol Hill and in the administration - including Kushner, who is the president's son-in-law. 

The measure would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses in an effort to shrink the size of the federal prison population, which has boomed over the past several decades. 

It has bipartisan support from key senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

"The president remains committed to meaningful prison reform and will continue working with the Senate on their proposed additions to the bill. The administration remains focused on reducing crime, keeping communities safe and saving taxpayer dollars," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

Trump had previously indicated he thought positively of the reform plan, telling Republican senators earlier this month that he is open to it

But Senate Republican leaders were reluctant to take a vote on an issue that could divide the GOP ahead of the November midterms. 

Law-and-order Republicans, such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), have lambasted the proposal. Sessions also came out against the plan earlier this year, saying it "risks putting the very worst criminals back into our communities."

Koch network co-chairman and Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden said the news came as a "major disappointment." Criminal justice reform is one of the network's top agenda items, with officials having worked closely alongside Kushner.

"This news is a major disappointment to the overwhelming majority of Americans who care about increasing public safety, and want Washington to take action," Holden told The Hill. "It's sad that members of both parties would rather play politics than work together to advance meaningful criminal justice reforms that we know work."

"Though it may take a little longer than we had hoped, we remain committed to working with anyone who believes in passing smart-on-crime reforms that protect our communities, save money, and help people who want a second chance," Holden said.

Despite the setback on Thursday, proponents of a potential agreement remained optimistic Congress would eventually pass a deal on criminal justice reform. 

GOP Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), who has been at the center of the ongoing negotiations, said he hopes a bill will be taken up before the end of the year. 

Republicans, according to Lee, held two meetings on Capitol Hill to discuss a potential compromise that would link the House-passed prison reform bill with four sentencing reform provisions that have bipartisan support in the Senate. 

The first meeting included Lee, Grassley, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Kushner, who has been meeting with senators for more than a year on the issue. 

The second meeting included Lee, Grassley and Kushner. Lee's office noted that Trump called into the meeting to discuss the details of a potential deal on criminal justice reform. 

"Today's meeting was a huge step forward in getting a bill passed that will help keep communities safe and make our criminal justice system more fair," Lee said in a statement. "I hope to see this bill passed by the end of the year, and expect large bipartisan support as we strive to make our penal system work better for all Americans."

McConnell has yet to publicly comment on the talks. A senior White House official told The Hill late last week that while they had been in touch with the GOP leader, he had directed them to mainly work with Grassley. 

Grassley said in a separate statement that McConnell has an "openness" to bringing up the bill this year and that he was "encouraged" by Trump's comments on Thursday

"I'm very encouraged by the leadership shown today by President Trump to make prison and sentencing reform a priority soon after the election. ... I'm confident with the President's continued backing, we'll have more than enough votes to pass a bill overwhelmingly," he said. 

-- Jordain Carney and Jonathan Easley contributed reporting.

Updated at 6:17 p.m.

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