KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the waning days of the year, President Trump has two main legislative priorities that he wants Congress to act on: approving billions in funding for a border wall and passing a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s sentencing laws and prison systems.
Here, Trump showed which issue captivates him most.
Before a crowd of hundreds of law enforcement officials, Trump gave a brief shout-out to the criminal justice bill that has garnered support from an influential left-right coalition. He then spent considerably more time — at least six minutes of the 26-minute speech — warning of the dangers of illegal immigration and promoting a border wall that lawmakers have refused to fund to Trump’s liking.
“Congress must fully fund border security in the year-end funding bill. We have to get this done,” Trump said Friday during a conference hosted by the Justice Department. “They’re playing political games. I actually think the politics of what they’re doing is very bad for them.”
Hinting at the looming border wall showdown, Trump added: “We’re going to very soon find out. Maybe I’m not right. But usually I’m right.”
No issue has defined Trump and his rise more than immigration, which has long been a central focus of his campaign speeches, policy agenda and foreign policy tussles, particularly with Mexico. In his speech at the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference, Trump also decried local sheriffs and police chiefs who decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and advocated a switch to a merit-based immigration system.
Trump pushed for “fully funding” Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and detention beds, while warning of dangers in the caravan of migrants traveling through Mexico and proclaiming that “illegal immigration is a threat to the well-being of every American.”
“American politicians should protect American citizens, not criminal aliens,” Trump said. “Not one more American life should be stolen because of radical politicians pursuing their open borders agenda.”
Though Congress avoided a partial government shutdown Friday with a bill funding the government for two more weeks, lawmakers and Trump are still battling over how much border security funding to provide as the president continues to press for more money through public comments and his Twitter feed. Backers of the criminal justice bill also want to send the measure to Trump by the end of the year, before the Democratic-led House is sworn in and potentially demands more far-reaching changes that would be anathema to the Republican-led Senate.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who helped draft the sentencing and prison overhaul, has suggested combining the two. Graham spoke with the president on Friday and said Trump would support adding the criminal justice bill to the spending measure that needs to pass by Dec. 21.
But that could raise the risk of a partial government shutdown given deep opposition to the criminal justice bill from many Senate Republicans. Congressional leadership aides said Friday that the option of attaching the criminal justice bill to the spending legislation was not being discussed.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) also spoke Friday with Trump, who told him that he wants the criminal justice overhaul to be enacted this year during a call around 3 p.m., when Trump was on Air Force One back from Kansas City. Grassley, who was on a gravel road in Iowa when he took the call, tweeted that he told Trump that support for the bill was growing.
One reason for the light focus on the criminal justice bill during Trump’s speech Friday — delivered in a staid hotel ballroom full of primarily male attorneys, police chiefs and other officials in suits — could be that the legislation has split the law enforcement community. The influential Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed the bill, and the organization’s leader, Chuck Canterbury, appeared alongside Trump as the president endorsed the bill last month.
But the National Sheriffs’ Association, which holds considerable sway with conservative Senate Republicans, opposes the legislation and has proposed a number of changes that would win over wavering GOP senators but almost surely splinter the bipartisan coalition behind the bill.
The bill, named the First Step Act, makes sweeping changes to current sentencing laws to loosen some mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related and other offenses, while incorporating several changes to the prison system to help inmates and reduce the risk of recidivism.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has opposed previous iterations of the sentencing overhaul, announced Friday that he would support the revised version. There are now 34 co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate, and its supporters say it could garner upward of 80 votes in the Senate if it were put up for a vote.
“We all benefit when those who have served their time can find a job, support their families and stay the hell out of jail, right? It’s what we want. Stay out of jail,” Trump said at the law enforcement conference on Friday. “That’s why I have called on Congress to pass the First Step Act so that more inmates gain the skills they need to become productive, law-abiding citizens.”
But the Trump-backed legislation has deeply riven Senate Republicans, among whom the bill has powerful supporters but also loud opponents and lawmakers questioning why the Senate is considering jamming the bill through at the end of the year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has privately indicated to the White House and his allies that a vote on the criminal justice bill is unlikely in the remaining weeks of the year, when other must-pass legislative items are competing for Congress’s attention.
Late Friday, Trump called on McConnell to schedule of vote on the bill.
“Hopefully Mitch McConnell will ask for a VOTE on Criminal Justice Reform,” he tweeted. “It is extremely popular and has strong bipartisan support. It will also help a lot of people, save taxpayer dollars, and keep our communities safe. Go for it Mitch!”