Does President Trump’s Twitter tirade taunting Chrissy Teigen (and her husband, musician and activist John Legend) suggest a shift in his administration’s narrative regarding criminal justice reform?
Trump’s four tweet lament (pleading that he gets no credit for the reform legislation that passed last year, while undeserving others take that credit) reeked of resentment, jealousy, and recrimination, and it may be the latest in a series of signals that — as we move into an election year — he is abandoning the “Reform” mantle in favor of a punitive, retributive “law and order” narrative.
Let’s look at how we got here.
Back in May, in a pair of tweets (here and here), the President taunted former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats for their support of the 1994 Crime Bill and for the enormous rise in incarceration that has followed — particularly among African-Americans. Trump also claimed to be “responsible for Criminal Justice Reform.”
Now there is no doubt that Nixonian “law and order” has been a hallmark of Trump’s rhetoric at least since the ‘80s, when he called for the execution of the five falsely accused teenagers who became known as the Central Park Five. Nevertheless, since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who was a stalwart opponent of any and all criminal justice reform measures) fell from the President’s favor, Trump has allowed his daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley wide purchase in pursuing criminal justice reform. That initiative culminated in the legislation known as the First Step Act.
If its name was any indication, the First Step Act was meant to be the beginning of the story, with Kushner and Grassley hoping to seize the issue from Democrats, many of whom at one time joined Republicans in supporting the very laws that were central to establishing the United States as a nation having 25% of the world’s prisoners and only 5% of its population.
Trump himself has hosted Kim Kardashian at the White House several times, as she has sought his support for her initiatives of reform and mercy.
Even Attorney General William Barr seemed to be getting the message. During his first tenure as AG, Barr literally helped write the handbook on mass incarceration. However, in spite of that legacy, initially, he appeared to be trying to fall in line with Kushner and Grassley’s narrative, albeit somewhat tepidly.
In my interview with the Attorney General back in June, Barr said:
“I think that the process we’re going through now of trying to identify nonviolent offenders and reduce their sentences, get them back out and back into the world as productive citizens, is a good step to take… I think the First Step Act with its focus on that, but also starting to focus on programs that actually help reentry into society and suppress recidivism, are things we should be doing and I’ve supported it… “
And though, as Paul Butler pointed out here, the Attorney General didn’t apologize for his role in the blight that mass incarceration has caused to people and communities of color, he did recognize its pernicious toll.
But then, last month, in an address to the Fraternal Order of Police, Barr flipped the script. He gave a red meat “tough on crime” political speech that culminated in his lamenting:
“…the emergence in some of our large cities of District Attorneys who style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the law.”
This seems to be part of a coordinated effort among a certain cadre of Republicans including Todd Gilbert, the Virginia House GOP leader who tweeted:
“These social justice prosecutors will inevitably get their citizens hurt, robbed, burglarized or much worse because of their approach to crime.”
Gilbert’s statement was, at least in part, a response to the primary victory of reform minded candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti as the Democratic nominee for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Arlington.
Dehghani-Tafti and two prosecutors wrote a Washington Post Op Ed in response to Barr’s speech in which they sought to correct Barr’s mischaracterisation of what they believe:
“Not every social problem should be criminalized,” they wrote, and listed a litany of humanitarian issues that they support, including bail fairness, restorative over retributive justice, diversion and education over incarceration for youths, decriminalization of marijuana possession, and an end to the death penalty.
In perhaps the most personal and bitter example of this new narrative from the Barr Justice Department, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain assigned responsibility for the shooting of multiple police officers to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. In a written statement, McSwain accused the DA of promoting a “culture of disrespect for law enforcement,” and specifically charged Krasner of calling police and prosecutors corrupt, racist “war criminals” comparable to Nazis.
In a statement to NPR, Krasner said he was surprised McSwain “would seek to detract from the great collaborative work of law enforcement,” saying McSwain was acting “for his own political agenda and personal gain.”
When I wrote my note to the Attorney General requesting an interview with him, I explained that Crime Story’s mission is to foster a climate where sensible and humane criminal justice reform is possible. I also observed that the Trump Administration seemed to be sending a message that public and police safety are compatible with addressing inherent inequities in the system that leave individuals of limited means at a distinct disadvantage.
During our conversation, he offered qualified support for this ethos, particularly as embodied in the First Step Act. However, during and after that same conversation he was either unable or unwilling to respond to questions regarding implicit bias in law-enforcement, bail reform, and private prisons.
Moreover, judging from the rhetorical pivot that he and other Republicans have made in recent weeks, there seems to be a groundswell of backlash against reformers in the Republican ranks. And now the President identifies those who are — in his view — undeservedly taking credit for reform as the very same people who are calling for his impeachment.
But perhaps the most significant tell that Trump is done with his engagement on Criminal Justice Reform is the fact that in his Twitter spree last week, he twice referred to the “passage of Criminal Justice Reform” in the past tense, and never once referred to it as the First Step Act.
The President appears to be done with this policy initiative. And his administration seems poised to reverse some of the strides that have been made in the name of “law and order.”
All of this suggests that the idea of “a first step forward” on Criminal Justice Reform may well be turning into the election year reality of “two steps back.”