Kamala Harris 'could not believe' Trump got criminal justice award, she says at forum

Harris rejoined a criminal justice forum in South Carolina after the removal of a sponsor that had given an award to Trump.

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By Deepa Shivaram, Dareh Gregorian and Janelle Griffith

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Saturday rejoined a criminal justice forum she had pulled out from a day earlier at a historically black college in South Carolina following the removal of a sponsor that had given President Donald Trump a "Bipartisan Justice Award."

The California senator told the crowd at the forum at Benedict College on Saturday that she "couldn't believe" that Trump would be given an award for criminal justice reform, a statement that was met with applause.

"This is somebody who has disrespected the voices that have been present for decades about the need for reform of this system — the people who have marched for justice in this system, the people who have sacrificed to create leadership around justice in this system," Harris said.

Harris had pulled out of the forum Friday in Columbia upon learning that organizer 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center had given the president an award and that only a limited number of students from the school were allowed to attend Trump's remarks.

She said Saturday that, "As a proud HBCU graduate and especially knowing these times and the challenges of these times, I believed that it was so critically important that the students be present, that their voices be heard."

Harris also lambasted Trump for a tweet earlier this week in which he described the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as a “lynching” and said it was “without due process or fairness or any legal rights.”

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"What do we have in Donald Trump? Someone who dares — dares — to use the word 'lynching' with the blood that has been poured on the soil of South Carolina and so many places," she said. "And he dares to compare himself to the people who have been at the wrong end of a system that is in need of reform."

Harris decided to participate in the event at Benedict after Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin announced Saturday that the candidate forums were sponsored only by him and the college, not the 20/20 Justice Center, according to a press release by Harris' campaign.

A day earlier, she had announced her decision not to join the forum.

“As the only candidate who attended an HBCU, I know the importance that these spaces hold for young Black Americans," she said.

"Today, when it became clear Donald Trump would receive an award after decades of celebrating mass incarceration, pushing the death penalty for innocent Black Americans, rolling back police accountability measures and racist behavior that puts people’s lives at risk, and then learned all but ten Benedict students are excluded from participating, I cannot in good faith be complicit in papering over his record," Harris said Friday.

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The event's organizer, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, had cited Trump's work in getting the criminal justice reform measure the First Step Act passed as the impetus for the award.

Trump tweeted that it was "my true honor" to receive the award.

The president responded to Harris early Saturday, calling her a "badly failing presidential candidate."

Reporters at the event said they only saw a few students in attendance for Trump's address in the 275-person capacity theater, which was packed with the president's allies and supporters. Students were not allowed to ask questions.

Columbia newspaper The State reported that about half the tickets for the event were reserved for guests of the administration, while the other half were distributed locally. The school told the paper there were spots saved for at least 10 students. A school official later said that 32 students were in attendance.

Previous winners of the Bipartisan Justice Award include Harris and Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican.

Other Democratic presidential candidates taking part in the forum at Benedict are former Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.