Opinion | Trump Shrugs Off Criminal Justice Reform
Even presidential and bipartisan support may not be enough to overcome Mitch McConnell.
By Michelle Cottle
Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.
Art of the deal, my foot. For all his talk about being a guy who gets stuff done, President Trump is poised to blow a rare chance to show leadership in securing vital bipartisan legislation.
Even before Congress paused this week to honor George H.W. Bush, time was running out to pass a desperately needed reform of the criminal justice system. The latest version of the First Step Act, hammered out by a bipartisan clutch of senators, initially looked to be on a promising path. The bill aims at rationalizing federal sentencing as well as improving conditions for inmates and helping ease them back into society after prison. It has garnered strong support in both chambers and has been endorsed by a broad spectrum of interest groups.
With the reform nemesis Jeff Sessions no longer making mischief as attorney general, advocates from both parties voiced optimism about the bill’s chances, if only the president would give it an extra little boost. The week after the midterms, Mr. Trump supplied that boost, hosting a White House ceremony at which he announced his support of the plan and lavished praise on lawmakers for hard work on this “crucial issue.”
Then Mitch McConnell went into action. Or, more precisely, the Senate majority leader shifted into his signature mode of vigorous inaction.
For months, Mr. McConnell had assured reformers that, if a bill emerged with the support of at least 60 members, he would bring it up for a vote. But no sooner had Mr. Trump finished praising the First Step Act than Mr. McConnell began weaseling out of his pledge, clucking about all the pressing business the Senate faced and how there likely wouldn’t be time to tackle this issue after all.
By now, there’s little point in criticizing Mr. McConnell for jamming things up. Obstructionism is what defines him — and is, in fact, among the “achievements” in which he has professed the greatest pride. More particularly, criminal justice reform is not a core concern of the Republican base. And with hard-liners such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas loudly trashing the bill, allowing a vote could lead to an awkward moment or two for Mr. McConnell’s conference. This the majority leader cannot abide, no matter how worthy the cause or how broad its support.
Now is when Mr. Trump’s much ballyhooed salesmanship skills could really come in handy. “If we get to it this year, it’ll be largely because of White House pressure,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, told CNN last week.
The president isn’t exactly shy about using his bully pulpit, and he has shown himself happy to pillory lawmakers, Mr. McConnell among them, when displeased with Congress’s lack of progress. But confronted with Mr. McConnell’s neglect of criminal justice reform, Mr. Trump has remained uncharacteristically passive.
He has reportedly phoned the Senate leader to ask him to take up the bill. But those involved with the reform push say they’ve seen little sign that Mr. Trump is exerting himself or willing to burn any political capital on this issue. The president has been unable even to rouse himself for a Twitter tirade, issuing only a single, cheery tweet on the topic in the weeks since his endorsement.
All of which sadly suggests criminal justice reform will soon be deader than disco. To get the bill moving again, Mr. Trump would need to make clear — to his base and to his Senate leader — that this issue is important to him.
And therein lies the problem. Overhauling the criminal justice system doesn’t seem to be of real interest to Mr. Trump. He has, in fact, been highly ambivalent about the need for reform. He was a fan of the retrograde policies pursued by Mr. Sessions as attorney general, and he has expressed enthusiasm for executing drug dealers à la Singapore and the Philippines.
Now and again, celebrities like Kim and Kanye have been able to get the president to focus on the plight of the incarcerated. But it took a prolonged lobbying effort by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, to secure the president’s support for the First Step Act. Even then, the widespread assumption was that Mr. Trump was mostly looking to shift attention from the spanking his team had just received in the midterms.
The president could still use a win, especially with Democrats set to take over the House next month. Admittedly, this would call for Mr. Trump displaying greater skill in handling Mr. McConnell than he has thus far managed. Mr. Trump, however, prides himself on his deal-cutting prowess and, above all else, desires to be seen a winner. Being the president on whose watch criminal justice reform occurred would be a genuine achievement, earning him plaudits from both sides of the aisle.
Alternatively, he can spend the next few weeks ranting about the Russia inquiry and his border wall. Such are the choices that define a leader.
Read more on criminal justice reform
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.