Advocates fear the president isn’t fully invested in the fight for the bill.
The last time Donald Trump thought Mitch McConnell was stalling one of his priorities — on Obamacare repeal — the president publicly lashed out at the Senate majority leader, tweeting that he should “get back to work.” But when it comes to criminal justice reform, it’s another story altogether.
Although Trump has publicly endorsed the bipartisan prison and sentencing reform bill, he hasn’t publicly called out McConnell for bottling it up and seems reluctant to spend political capital on the legislation — raising doubts among bill supporters and opponents about how invested Trump really is. Indeed, the president is far more interested in securing money for his border wall in the lame duck, according to senators in both parties.
“We can certainly use his help in the Republican Senate caucus,” said Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who conceded that Trump’s priority is the wall.
“I keep hearing that he’s all for it. I haven’t seen any evidence of that,” said one GOP senator who supports the measure to reform federal prisons and sentencing guidelines.
For lawmakers, the issue has highlighted the difficulty of working with the president on legislation. Aside from immigration and trade, the president holds few firm convictions on matters of policy and frequently shifts positions to please the people in front of him, making him a frustrating negotiating partner.
Trump took up the cause of criminal justice reform last month at the urging of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but the president’s endorsement was as much an effort to distract from Republican losses in the midterm elections as a reflection of his heartfelt convictions, according to two sources familiar with his thinking. Indeed, Trump had previously said that some of the drug offenders toward whom the bill would show leniency should receive the death penalty.
Although advocates insist the president is committed to the bill and are heartened by his public support, some allies in Congress are hoping he does more with his bully pulpit to drag the bill across the finish line, according to interviews with people in both parties.
“It’s not like he cares about the First Step Act as much as he cares about the wall,” said one person working on the bill. “Could Trump be tweeting about the First Step Act as much as he tweets about [special counsel Robert] Mueller? Sure. But outside of tax reform and immigration, I can’t think of an issue he’s been more supportive of.”
Trump has only sporadically mentioned the bill in his Twitter feed despite an urgent time crunch on Capitol Hill and rarely brings it up unprompted in interviews or remarks with reporters. He’s called McConnell privately and urged him to take up the bill but hasn’t unleashed his most aggressive tactics.
Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said Trump endorsed the bill after “many discussions and meetings with the bill’s supporters in GOP Senate leadership.”
The president was always a hard sell on the legislation, in part because it divided law enforcement groups, according to a White House official. Trump isn’t going to walk away from it now, the official said, but he won’t make it his top priority over the next month either.
Instead, the president is publicly concentrating his attacks on Democrats over border wall funding — and laying off McConnell over his reluctance to bring up the criminal justice bill.
“This is not an either-or proposition,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “He and his White House have endorsed the First Step Act and continue to advocate for better security along our southern border. I’m working to get both of them across the finish line.”
Still, Trump’s difficulties are twofold: He must persuade a skeptical McConnell to make floor time for a bill that the majority leader himself has yet to endorse and also reckon with the bill’s haters, including allies like Sen. Tom Cotton. The Arkansas Republican is attacking the measure as soft on crime as supporters in both parties try to revise it to appeal to more Republicans. Right now it’s short of the support levels with which McConnell is comfortable.
“I don’t think [Trump’s] overly invested. But I think he would like it to pass because it would be another achievement for his administration,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Republicans in Congress say Trump likes that the bill is bipartisan and loves that it could amount to a significant legislative win heading into his reelection campaign. It doesn’t hurt that it would be a victory that President Barack Obama couldn’t achieve.
Trump offered a modest rallying cry on Twitter last month, though he lumped in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is not at all a roadblock to the legislation.
“Really good Criminal Justice Reform has a true shot at major bipartisan support. @senatemajldr Mitch McConnell and @SenSchumer have a real chance to do something so badly needed in our country,” Trump wrote. “Would be a major victory for ALL!”
Grassley has taken to Twitter to cheer Trump’s endorsement and urge him to push past intraparty resistance. He also credited the White House for conducting its own whip count on the criminal justice legislation.
“We don’t have to rely just upon the Republican leadership whip check,” Grassley noted, a subtle acknowledgment that GOP leaders aren’t yet sold on taking up the bill. “And it looks very good to the White House.”
But Trump is hazy on the details and has privately raised some concerns about the bill. He’s also caught between different factions in his own White House, according to a Republican who speaks frequently with the president — with chief of staff John Kelly and White House advisers Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller reluctant to move forward and Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Kushner pushing for the legislation.
“Jared’s invested in it. And therefore [Trump] is. But he hasn’t called me,” said a second Republican senator. Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence attended a GOP lunch on Tuesday as they watched Republicans debate it internally; Kushner stayed silent, though Pence advocated for the bill.
In a further sign of a split in the administration, a Justice Department draft of a revised bill leaked recently, with the name of Steven Cook, a top DOJ official and ally of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions attached. The White House was forced to publicly disavow the controversial proposal.
“While senior staff is 100 percent behind the Senate compromise, it’s the president, and only the president, who determines what legislation the White House supports, and he supports the First Step Act,” said a second White House official.
Yet the bill still hasn’t seen action despite Trump’s endorsement.
One reason that Trump isn’t leaning on McConnell publicly is that their relationship has improved significantly since last August.
McConnell has delivered two Supreme Court justices and tax reform, earning trust from the president and proving the GOP leader knows what’s best for his conference. McConnell’s allies kept reminding the president in the summer of 2017, despite Trump’s anger, that the GOP was short of the votes to repeal Obamacare. And on criminal justice reform, the Republican leader wants perhaps 30 of his 51 members to support the bill publicly before moving forward, wary of advancing on an issue that splits Republicans.
But Trump’s deference to McConnell on criminal justice reform could be deadly for the legislation.
McConnell has never endorsed the bill and is intent on confirming judges, avoiding a shutdown and clinching a deal on the farm bill. Advocates like Durbin claim the GOP leader is the only impediment to passage: “It’s totally in his hands.”
“Mitch is trying to juggle a bunch of bowling balls,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “What’s the most important thing we’ve got to do? … For Mitch, it’s judges. But we’ve got next year we can deal with judges.”
The criminal justice bill, Graham added, “is a start-over project that becomes much harder” once Democrats take the House in January.