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Trump huddles with governors, other officials on prison overhaul

President Trump speaks to business leaders this week at his golf club in New Jersey. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — President Trump is publicly pressing for prison reform while his administration privately works on an agreement with Congress that would overhaul a bigger swath of the criminal justice system but may rile tough-on-crime conservatives.

Trump hosted a roundtable Thursday with governors, state attorneys general and Cabinet officials on prison reform during his 11-day working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. It’s the second week in a row in which Trump has held meetings on the issue.

Behind the scenes, the administration and congressional officials are crafting an agreement that would add significant changes in the nation’s mandatory sentencing laws to a widely popular prison reform bill that passed the House earlier this year, according to two officials familiar with the discussions.

During Thursday’s roundtable, Trump said the administration was working to “refine” the House-backed measure in the Senate. 

“I have to say, we have tremendous political support. It surprises me. I thought that when we started this journey about a year ago, I thought we would not have a lot of political support,” Trump said, flanked by the state officials and some of his top aides. “People I would least suspect are behind it, 100 percent.”

The deal in progress would add four provisions overhauling the sentencing system — legislation written by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and backed by a broad coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans — to the House bill, which does not touch sentencing laws but focuses on reducing recidivism among prisoners, the officials said.

“We had a great meeting with President Trump on criminal justice reform,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), one of the key Republicans behind the Senate bill, told The Washington Post last week. “I think we’ve made some meaningful progress.”

Under the agreement in the works, 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, the officials said.

It would also 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. One of the officials said this applies to only about 2,000 people.

The deal also would reduce mandatory minimum sentences that go into effect when a firearm is used during a violent crime or a 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.

Yet Trump will find resistance to the tentative changes from within his own administration, as well as his closest allies on Capitol Hill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been ferociously opposed to changing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and fought with Grassley over the bill when he was a senator. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is another Republican senator who has long voiced objections to the sentencing changes.

In turn, Grassley has been particularly pointed in dismissing Sessions’s opposition to his criminal justice reform bill. He noted that he told the White House last year he would not hold a confirmation hearing for a new attorney general nominee, an implicit warning to Trump to not fire Sessions as head of the Justice Department.

“With all that I have done to help Sessions, to keep the president from firing him, I think Sessions ought to stay out of it,” Grassley said last week.

The senator said “there seems to be an interest” from the White House in keeping sentencing and prison reforms together in one package. That had been a major hurdle in any criminal justice reform bill moving forward, since Grassley and many other senators are vehemently opposed to taking up the House bill without the more encompassing, yet controversial, changes from the Senate.

“I think we made great progress so it doesn’t have to be broken up,” Grassley said. “We’re in initial conversations with the White House, and they seem to be going well.”

The agreement was discussed at a meeting between Trump and Senate Republicans at the White House last week. Among those who attended, according to one of the officials, were Grassley, Lee, and GOP Sens. Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, as well as Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser, and Brooke Rollins, who joined the White House Office of American Innovation this year and has worked on criminal justice reform issues.

Thursday’s meeting in Bedminster follows “successful meetings with inner city pastors and Republican senators last week,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Thursday. He called the House bill, formally called the First Step Act, an “important bipartisan bill that will help reduce crime, mend families, and save taxpayer dollars.”

 The White House has declined to relay specifics of what was discussed with Senate Republicans. A White House official stressed that Trump “believes this is a nation of laws, and he’ll always be very tough on crime.”

“The president also believes in second chances once a debt to society has been paid,” the official said.

Criminal justice reform is just one item on Kushner’s broad policy portfolio at the White House, but one that resonates personally. His father, Charles Kushner, spent 14 months in an Alabama prison after being convicted on tax evasion and other federal crimes, and Kushner is a regular presence on Capitol Hill, meeting privately with lawmakers working on criminal justice reform.