Trump relies on his criminal justice reform creds, while prison time is a favorite threat for his opponents


Sleepy Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill was a total disaster. It was mass incarceration for Black people, many of them innocent. I did Criminal Justice Reform, something Obama & Biden didn’t even try to do – & couldn’t do even if they did try. Biden can never escape his Crime Bill! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2020

But the president also undercuts his commitment to that issue — a key point of that bill is to mitigate damage caused by unnecessarily harsh sentencing — by reverting to his tough-on-crime instincts even for nonviolent offenses. He did so again Tuesday.

Activists across the country have spent the past several weeks tearing down statues of former Confederate leaders and others who represent racist causes, as the nation reckons with the prevalence of anti-black racism. A group of protesters near the White House attempted to topple a statue of President Andrew Jackson on Monday, but police intervened. Trump’s response was to dangle the prospect of jail time in a Tuesday morning tweet.

“I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent. This action is taken effective immediately, but may also be used retroactively for destruction or vandalism already caused. There will be no exceptions!”

Trump was authorizing a 2003 law that punishes “attempts to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monument on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States.”

The threat of jail time as a punishment or a deterrent to an activity he opposes was a reminder that Trump’s instincts always lean toward law and order, even as many Americans are considering alternatives to incarceration to respond to concerns about crime and public safety.

A core objective of criminal justice reform has been to decrease the prison population. Activists point to mass incarceration as a costly social ill that often causes more problems than it solves. And this point continues to resurface as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle discuss ways to reform the country’s law enforcement system.

Even the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill that the president signed in 2018 and often touts, has prioritized early release as one of its key objectives. But when the president feels as though one of his core values has been personally attacked — perhaps especially related to the culture war conversation on race in America that appears to be of particular interest to him — he often looks to prison for vindication.

Trump last week threatened those planning to protest at his rallies.

Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2020

Since the beginning of the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, Trump has taken a tough approach against demonstrators. He reemphasized that Tuesday to reporters.

After thanking law enforcement for attempting to save a “great monument” to Jackson, Trump elaborated on an executive order that he said would be public “very soon.”

“We are looking at long-term jail sentences [for] anarchists,” he said. “We are ready, able and willing to help, as we did in Minnesota.”

On Saturday, he said lawmakers should back legislation sending people who burn the American flag to jail.

“Two days ago, leftist radicals in Portland, Oregon, ripped down a statue of George Washington and wrapped it in an American flag and set the American flag on fire,” he told attendees at his Tulsa rally. “We ought to come out with legislation that if you burn the American flag you go to jail for one year.”

It’s tough to square Trump creating a rule that would impose long jail terms for crimes such as vandalism with his apparent pride in reducing sentences. That brings into question the sincerity of his commitment to criminal justice reform and keeping as many people out of prison as possible.