As the presidential campaign enters the post-Labor Day home stretch, the Trump campaign has invested heavily in swing-state advertising that labels former Vice President Joe Biden as both too weak on crime and too tough on crime.
But every time the Trump campaign hits Biden for his authorship of the 1994 omnibus crime bill that vastly expanded funding for police and the construction of prisons—part of a concerted effort to weaken the former vice president’s standing among Black voters—they are omitting the fact that a key member of the cabinet derided the law as not tough enough.
“Yes, more police,” Bill Barr, fresh off his first stint at the helm of the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush, told CBS News’ Bob Schieffer in August 1993 when asked about the proposed legislation. “But they also need prosecutors and prisons. If you put police on the street with no prison space behind them, all you’re going to do is spin that revolving door faster.”
But Barr also praised parts of the 1994 crime bill, primarily the aspects that have now dogged Biden as progressive policies on law enforcement reform and criminal justice have become Democratic orthodoxy.
Among the components of the crime bill that Barr supported included the so-called “three strikes” provision that required life sentences for those convicted of multiple crimes, the expansion of mandatory minimums, and an increase in prison capacity and decrease in granting of parole.
“I not only agree with it,” Barr told the Selma Times-Journal in January 1994 about the bill’s “three-strikes” provisions, “I called for it when I was attorney general.”
“The American criminal justice system must be reformed, particularly at the state level, to eliminate ‘revolving-door’ justice,” proclaimed the founding statement of The First Freedom Coalition, a Washington advocacy group headed by Barr at the time, during the Senate debate over the bill. “Violent criminals must stay in prison for the entire length of their sentences. Releasing such offenders after a fraction of their sentences have been served results in more victimizations.”
Barr himself had also helped Biden pass crime legislation only two years previous, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 1991 that he had “worked closely” with Biden on crime legislation, later crediting him as “one of the reasons we were able to get the crime bill through.”
Barr’s opposition to the bill, he told reporters at the time, was that it didn’t go far enough in funding the construction of prisons—while theorizing that the United States had the world’s highest crime rate because of the country’s diversity.
“We have the highest crime rate in the world, and that’s unfortunate, and I think it has to do with a lot of aspects of our society, our heterogeneity and so forth,” Barr told CNN’s Larry King in June 1992. “But the fact remains that if you commit a crime in the United States your chances of going to prison are the same as in Canada and the United Kingdom. So we’re not more punitive than other countries.”
More recently, Barr—who has expressed a willingness to wade into politics to a degree that other attorneys general have avoided—has also defended the president’s moves on crime, even those that, compared to the ’94 crime bill, seem positively Dukakisian.
In May, when the Justice Department decided to drop charges against former national security adviser and confessed obstructor of justice Michael Flynn, Barr denied that Trump—who had publicly floated a pardon for Flynn—had influenced the decision, telling CBS News that “history is written by the winners.”
“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump tweeted in support of the move. “Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!”
The Trump campaign did not respond to the apparent contradiction between its messaging on the cruelty of the 1994 crime and Barr’s—and Trump’s—support for even more aggressive crime measures.
The Daily Beast has reported on President Donald Trump’s double-barreled criticism of Biden’s record on crime—that he is simultaneously an antifa warrior who will burn white suburbs to the ground and also the architect of the modern carceral state. But the Trump campaign, where hypocrisy on “tough-on-crime” legislation comes straight from the top of the ticket, has been leaning hard into the crime bill as Biden’s fatal flaw.
“Mass incarceration has put hundreds of thousands behind bars for minor offenses. Joe Biden wrote those laws,” intones one spot, titled “We Remember.” The ad, which features still images of Black men in prison cells and claims that “Joe Biden’s policies destroyed millions of black lives,” is running during daytime shows with high Black viewerships in Atlanta, Charlotte and Philadelphia—all cities with large Black populations.
Meanwhile, the advertisement “Break In,” featuring an elderly white woman dialing 911 to alert authorities to a burglar but getting no answer, is running in many of the same cities—but it airs during shows with high white viewerships like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Judge Judy. The spot quotes a false claim by Fox News host Sean Hannity that Biden is “absolutely on board with defunding the police,” before cutting to the words “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” as the elderly woman drops the phone.