WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pledged his support for a major overhaul of sentencing laws and prisoner re-entry programs at the White House on Wednesday.
Trump's backing for the package, which is still being drafted in the Senate, has been seen as a key factor in providing political cover for Republicans and Democrats to vote for an overhaul that would diminish criminal penalties for some offenders and make it easier for former inmates to find work.
Trump framed a planned reduction in certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and other proposed sentencing provisions as a bid to fix President Bill Clinton's 1994 anti-crime law.
"It rolls back some of the provisions of the Clinton crime law that disproportionately harmed [the] African-American community," Trump said at a White House event.
At the same time, he praised a bipartisan push for re-evaluating criminal justice issues — even though none of the lawmakers who joined him at the White House were Democrats.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who attended the event, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who did not, released a joint statement praising Trump's position following his remarks.
"President Trump’s endorsement of the bipartisan criminal justice reform compromise is an important step in our shared effort to promote safe communities and improve justice," they said. "By preparing inmates bound for release to become productive citizens, we can reduce crime and the social and economic cost of incarceration. And by ensuring that punishments fit the crimes, we can better balance the scales of justice."
The House passed a piece of the proposal earlier this year with 360 votes — including 226 Republicans and 134 Democrats.
The deal emerging in the Senate would include a retroactive application of a 2010 law designed to create greater parity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine convictions.
Trump thanked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been the White House point person on its delayed criminal justice reform efforts.
"He feels very deeply about it," Trump said.
Kushner wanted to push the effort forward in September, according to a White House official, who said the senior Trump adviser met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then to try to see if the Senate could “jam this in” before the election.
McConnell, per this official, essentially asked the White House to “let this go until after the election,” and in return promised to whip the vote. He suggested Kushner “finalize your language, shore up support” and then McConnell would check on the vote count and try to take it to the floor if it had enough backing.
Despite the fact that former attorney general Jeff Sessions had opposed many of the suggested sentencing reforms, this official said it was “coincidental” that they had happened so soon after his departure, and "no correlation" between his exit and the announcement; before his exit, they said, Sessions had appeared to be on board with most of the elements involved.
And despite the president's repeated nods Wednesday to the bipartisan nature of the push, there were no Democratic lawmakers appeared at Wednesday's event. And despite the president's endorsement, it’s still not clear how involved he plans to be in working the phones to try to sway votes.
Still, the White House official pointed to behind-the-scenes talks between administration aides and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, predicting the package would “way more than clear 60 votes” in the Senate.