Trump Backs Out on FIRST STEP

Source: Administration to defer bill until after election

Donald Trump Jeff Sessions
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August 23, 2018

The Trump administration plans to pause its support for a major criminal justice reform bill until at least after the November election, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

Following a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump has concluded that the FIRST STEP Act is too problematic to be worth pursuing at the present time, according to a senior administration official with direct knowledge of the meeting. The administration expects to revisit the proposal following the election, to assess whether it can chart a way forward for Trump's prison reform goals.

Indeed, while FIRST STEP has had its public backers from the administration, it seems that many in the room have been discomfited from the beginning. In a high-level meeting earlier this week, the source said, everyone present was concerned about the bill with the exception of Kushner and administration official Brooke Rollins. Those present at the meeting included Domestic Policy Council, representatives of White House Legislative Affairs, and others.

This revelation marks a major reversal for Trump, who earlier this month said publicly that he was "working to pass FIRST STEP." The bill, a bipartisan proposal which had won White House support thanks largely to presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, had the backing of a number of prominent criminal justice reform advocacy groups. It also, critically, was backed by a number of pro-reform Republicans in the Senate, a group that had previously talked Trump into adding a sentencing reform component to the bill.

But, while some conservative voices favored FIRST STEP, it has provoked marked unease on Capitol Hill. A number of senators, most prominently Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), have pushed back publicly and privately against the bill. They argue that if implemented, it will lead to the immediate release of thousands of federal inmates, thanks to a restructured "good time" credit system, which allows release after only a percentage of the overall sentence is served.

Also opposed to the bill were numerous law enforcement groups, with the most vociferous opposition coming from the nation's top cop, Sessions. In a memo from the Department of Justice obtained by the Free Beacon earlier this month, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd outlined Sessions's and DOJ's concerns about the bill, which he wrote would "further and significantly erode our long established truth-in-sentencing principles, create impossible administrative burdens, effectively reduce the sentences of thousands of violent felons, and endanger the safety of law-abiding citizens and law enforcement officers."

These forces have now successfully convinced Trump that the bill is untenable in its current form. Trump was concerned, the source said, about passing a bill with such overwhelming Republican discomfort, as well as the substantive policy concerns raised by FIRST STEP's critics.

It is unclear if the White House will take up the bill again after the election. The administration did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication time.