When then-President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December 2018, he hailed it as “an incredible success for our country.”
But in an interview with Fox News this week, Trump struggled to reconcile his support for that criminal justice reform law with his call for the death penalty to be imposed against drug dealers, appearing caught off guard when anchor Bret Baier noted the punishment would apply to Alice Johnson, a woman whose sentence he commuted.
The exchange with Baier underscores the vulnerability Trump’s challengers see in the former president on the issue of crime, even as Trump touts himself as a law-and-order candidate.
“After the ‘defund the police’ movement, Republican primary voters want candidates who are going to be tough on crime,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential bid.
“It’s one of those issues where a lot has changed in just a few years,” Conant said. “Every candidate is looking for ways to attack Trump from the right, and crime is one of those openings.”
The First Step Act was embraced by many upon its passage in 2018 as a significant bipartisan success during an administration that was rife with polarization.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser at the time, Jared Kushner, led the push for the bill from the White House. The law reduced mandatory minimum sentences, expanded credits for well-behaved prisoners looking for shorter sentences and aimed to reduce recidivism.
It was viewed as such an asset for Trump at the time that his 2020 campaign paid millions of dollars to air a Super Bowl ad that year that highlighted Johnson’s story and featured the line: “Politicians talk about criminal justice reform. President Trump got it done.”
But the conversation around crime within the GOP has shifted since that ad aired.
Strategists and party officials largely point to the protests against racial injustice that swept the nation in summer 2020 after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, and the calls from some progressives to defund the police that sprung out of that movement.
With a Democrat in the White House, it has become easier for Republicans to blame the opposing party for high-profile violent incidents in New York City or increased crime rates in Washington.
Instead of embracing criminal justice reform as an accomplishment, the GOP position toward crime has hardened, with politicians and presidential candidates calling for severe crackdowns on violent offenders and drug dealers.
That has made the First Step Act in particular a target for criticism from some candidates challenging Trump for the party’s 2024 nomination.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is running second behind Trump in most primary polls, said last month that if elected president, he would call on Congress to repeal the criminal justice reform law.
DeSantis voted for the initial House version of the bill while serving as a congressman in 2018, something Trump’s team has highlighted. But DeSantis resigned his seat to run for governor before the final version of the bill came up for a vote that year. Critics argue the final bill was watered down from the House version.
Even Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, has argued there is a need to “rethink” the criminal justice reform bill signed by Trump.
“I mean we’ve got a crime wave in our major cities, and I think now more than ever we ought to be thinking about how we make penalties tougher on people who are victimizing families in this country,” Pence said during a CNN town hall the day he launched his 2024 bid.
Trump himself has offered a policy platform for a potential second term that includes intense crackdowns on cities and criminals in a bid to curb crime. His proposals include moving homeless encampments out of cities, giving police more authority, deploying the military to squash the drug trade and imposing the death penalty for convicted drug dealers.
But those ideas can be hard to square with the former president’s previous support for criminal justice reform and a raft of pardons he offered for nonviolent offenders who were in jail for drug-related crimes.
In this week’s Fox interview, when Trump highlighted the clemency he granted Alice Johnson, who was in the Super Bowl ad and had been sentenced to life in prison for charges related to drug dealing, Baier noted Johnson would be killed under his new proposal.
“No, no, no, under my — oh, under that?” Trump responded. “It would depend on the severity.”
Additionally, Trump’s attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department and his defense of rioters from the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol have given President Biden and the White House ample fodder to undermine Trump’s image as a “law and order” candidate.
The issue of crime and criminal justice reform is an example of the needle Trump may have to thread to win the GOP primary, where voters are more right-leaning, while also competing in the general election, where he will have to win over moderate and independent voters in a race against President Biden.
Part of the emphasis on Trump’s record on criminal justice reform in 2020 was due to the fact he was running against Biden, who was criticized for leading the passage of the 1994 crime bill that activists blame in part for driving up incarceration rates.
In addition, Trump has said Kushner, who had significant influence during his first White House term, will not play a role in the 2024 campaign. And Johnson’s case was brought to Trump’s attention by Kim Kardashian, who similarly is unlikely to have any influence on Trump’s thinking moving forward.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which hosted a major conference in Washington this weekend and featured numerous GOP presidential candidates, advocated for criminal justice reform at the federal level for years leading up to the passage of the First Step Act.
Reed said in an interview there are many positives about the law that get overlooked because of the shift rightward on crime, and he argued Trump signing the legislation was a factor that helped him win over a larger share of Black voters in 2020 compared to 2016.
“It’s not a soft-on-crime position,” Reed said. “And we’re certainly not in favor of allowing violent repeat offenders back on the streets.”
But, Reed added, “When you have rising crime rates you can’t be surprised if there’s a political shift.”