President Trump has endorsed the tenets of an emerging compromise that overhauls the nation’s sentencing laws and reforms federal prison policy, a key Republican senator said Thursday, giving a jolt of momentum to a long-stalled bill, although Trump doesn’t plan to push it until after the November elections.
The consensus came from a White House meeting earlier Thursday that included Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who has taken up criminal-justice reform as a personal cause.
“It’s not dead at all,” an ecstatic Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said after getting a private readout of the meeting from Kushner, who traveled to Capitol Hill later Thursday to brief key senators working on the legislative effort. “My understanding is that what he said was, okay, let’s do this but maybe not until after the elections.”
Lee, citing Kushner, said that while the major push on the issue would have to wait until after the midterms, Trump was nonetheless on board with the concepts of the compromise. He added: “We’re confident we can get the votes.”
The Justice Department gave what appeared to be a conflicting account: “We’re pleased the president agreed that we shouldn’t support criminal justice reform that would reduce sentences, put drug traffickers back on our streets, and undermine our law enforcement officers who are working night and day to reduce violent crime and drug trafficking in the middle of an opioid crisis,” said spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores.
And Trump already is facing fierce personal lobbying from both opponents and supporters. After a separate White House meeting earlier Thursday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an avowed opponent of the criminal-justice-reform efforts on the Hill, spoke to Trump on the issue for about 10 minutes, according to an official familiar with the conversation.
Trump told Cotton, a close ally, that he opposes allowing fentanyl dealers out early from prison, which the emerging deal may do because it reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug felonies, according to people who have reviewed the legislation. Another section of the emerging compromise may allow fentanyl dealers to earn “time credits” so they could serve out their sentence in home confinement.
Cotton, according to the official, responded to Trump by stressing to him that he can’t have a “Willie Horton” situation on the president’s watch — referring to the convicted murderer who committed rape and other felonies while out from behind bars under a Massachusetts furlough program. Horton was the subject of a 1988 campaign ad that criticized Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, then the Democratic presidential nominee.
Trump replied to Cotton: You’re right, absolutely.
That meeting came after Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who unlike Cotton backs the criminal-justice overhaul, pushed Trump in a private conversation Thursday morning to act on the bill.
“I think he’s got a historic opportunity here to do something,” Graham said.
The deal in progress would add four provisions overhauling the sentencing system to a House-passed bill that does not address sentencing laws but focuses on reducing recidivism among prisoners.
Under the discussed agreement, the new package would include provisions from the Senate bill that lowers mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, including reducing the “three-strike” penalty from life behind bars to 25 years. The Senate bill allows these reductions to apply retroactively, but that would not be the case under the tentative compromise.
It also would include Senate language that retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduces the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses. And it would reduce mandatory minimum sentences that go into effect when a firearm is used during a violent crime or drug offense. Although this provision also can be applied retroactively, the tentative deal would not.
The pending agreement would also let judges take advantage of “safety valves” — provisions that allow them to issue sentences shorter than mandatory minimums for low-level crimes — in more circumstances. The contours of this agreement were initially discussed at a meeting this month with Trump and four key Senate Republicans who have been working on the issue — Graham, Lee, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
“I think he is receptive to some parts or aspects of the sentencing reform being fused on the prison reform,” Scott said Thursday morning. “I think he is sympathetic to first-time offenders. I think he’s sympathetic to nonviolent offenders. I think he wants the right sentence for the crime, and I think he is not sympathetic to fentanyl folks, those who sell fentanyl.”
On Capitol Hill, Kushner first met with Grassley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who would make the final call to bring up the bill on the Senate floor — and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the party’s chief vote counter.
Later Kushner, Grassley and Lee privately met in Grassley’s hideaway office at the Capitol, when Trump himself phoned into the meeting and discussed strategy on moving criminal-justice reform later this year.
“He understands the plan is to get the House bill, move it to the Senate after the elections and add those four provisions to it,” Lee said.
A White House spokesman was less definitive on Trump’s support but nonetheless noted his openness to adopting the Senate’s changes.
“The president remains committed to meaningful prison reform and will continue working with the Senate on their proposed additions to the bill,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said. “The administration remains focused on reducing crime, keeping communities safe and saving taxpayer dollars.”
McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart said late Thursday that the senator has made clear there would be no vote on the legislation before the midterm elections, adding “proponents of the legislation will continue to discuss the issue with their colleagues followed by a whip count after the October session to accurately assess the Conference’s view on the issue.”
Another obstacle is ensuring enough Democratic senators who backed the initial criminal justice measures stay on board. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the chief Democratic author of the bill, said Thursday that he did not support the deal “in its entirety” but added: “We are working toward a common goal.”
“It’s so large and complex, I can’t pick out one thing,” he said. “We are now just trying to make sure we get it scheduled for Senate consideration.”
Gabriel Pogrund and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.