Sen. Kamala Harris of California led the charge and was set to boycott the event altogether until the group that had invited Trump was removed as a sponsor. Other candidates, such as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said the president had a history of racist demagoguery that outweighed any recent efforts at criminal justice reform, including the First Step Act that he signed into law last year.
The First Step Act helped thousands of federal inmates secure early release under new sentencing guidelines, but Democrats were united in framing it as an insufficient measure. They called for more structural reforms to the criminal justice system, and took aim at Trump himself, who has made exploitation of racial grievance a trademark of his political brand.
“I find it hypocritical of him to tout whatever advances have been made in the First Step Act given his history,” Harris said. “The hypocrisy is deafening.”
In the Democratic primary, black voters play a key role in determining the party’s nominee, and South Carolina specifically will play a key role in choosing the next Democratic standard-bearer. The state votes fourth in the nomination process and has a Democratic electorate that has more than 60% black voters. With that in mind, candidates — white and black — have made appealing to black voters a key part of their 2020 pitches.
This includes introducing proposals about criminal justice reform, but also infusing more traditional “kitchen table” issues with a view of racial equity.
“It’s not going to take Kim Kardashian coming to the White House to expunge people’s records,” said Booker, referencing Trump’s close relationship with the reality television mogul who has taken up criminal justice reform in recent years.
Buttigieg said the president had inflamed racism and that it must be rooted out from the country’s core. Buttigieg has soared to the top tier of the Democratic field, but has struggled to shake a reputation that his campaign has neglected outreach to black voters.
On Saturday morning, he announced a new criminal justice plan to debut at the forum that called for reducing the incarcerated population nationwide by 50% and diversifying the judiciary, among other goals.
“I believe that if we do not destroy white supremacy in our lifetime, it could well destroy the American project in our lifetime,” Buttigieg said in a speech.
Saturday marked the second day of the three-day event, billed as the “Second Step Presidential Justice Forum.” Trump opened the session with keynote remarks Friday, and leading Democratic presidential candidates will speak later Saturday and Sunday, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The day began with a blast from Trump, who attacked Harris for announcing she would skip the panel in protest of him receiving an award from the event’s organizers. In a tweet, Trump called her a “badly failing presidential candidate” and added that the First Step Act and what he described as “the best unemployment numbers EVER” were “more than Kamala will EVER be able to do for African Americans!”
Harris responded with a tweet of her own, saying, “My whole life I’ve fought for justice and for the people — something you’d know nothing about.”
Harris and Booker both criticized the group that had organized the three-day event, a coalition of black Democrats and Republicans called the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. The group on Friday gave Trump a criminal justice award and the opportunity to speak in front of a hand-picked audience at Benedict College that largely excluded students.
“Once I heard that Trump received an award at the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum and stopped HBCU students from attending, I decided to do my own criminal justice reform event tomorrow instead,” said Harris, who kicked off the backlash. “I won’t be complicit in papering over his record.”
Harris later announced she would rejoin the forum, after the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center had been removed as an event sponsor. Booker criticized the group for inviting Trump and presenting him with the award.
“Donald Trump was given a platform unchecked for close to an hour,” Booker said. “The Bipartisan Justice Center allowed him to create some illusion of support from this community when, in fact, he excluded it.”
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