President Donald Trump, who never rescinded his call to execute a group of African-American men wrongly accused of assaulting a New York jogger and whose political rallies routinely feature chants to lock up his political opponents, is now accusing his Democratic rival of being too tough on crime.
And he is doing so, advisers concede, with a cynical purpose in mind: depressing the African-American vote for Democrats in the lead up to the 2020 election.
At least several times over the past two months, the president has emphasized to aides that he wants the criminal justice reform act that he signed into law in 2018 to be a significant component of his 2020 blitz, according to two people familiar with his comments. Trump has stressed that he believes the law, known as the First Step Act, could be used as a cudgel against Democrats, chief among them former Vice President Joe Biden. One of these sources recalled Trump saying that he wanted “everybody to beat the hell out of” Biden over the 1994 crime bill, which included draconian, tough-on-crime policies that progressive activists have long since turned against.
It’s an audacious gambit for a president who has spoken about his desire to execute drug dealers, pursued a family separation policy for migrants, and publicly told cops they should rough suspects up a bit more upon arrest.
But Trump’s advisers do not actually believe that the president can peel off a large percentage of the black vote from Biden with their attacks on the ‘94 crime bill, which spent huge sums on prison construction and deploying new cops, but also included the Violence Against Women Act and an assault weapons ban. Instead, they believe that if the president can puncture African-American voter enthusiasm for Biden, and fan ideological flames within the Democratic Party, then that could help kneecap the former VP, according to three people familiar with these internal discussions.
“Democrats can’t win unless they get Obama levels of black voter turnout,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist who heads the pro-Trump Great America PAC. “Unless they can get back those levels, it makes it awful hard for them to win the White House… I think it’s a legitimate weapon that Trump is wielding [against Biden], but I think it’ll be used by [Biden’s fellow] Democrats, as well, during the primary long before we get head-to-head, if in fact Biden is the finalist on the other side.”
Trump has used this playbook before. In 2016, he sharply criticized Hillary Clinton’s decades-old reference to “superpredators” during the 1990s crime panic, in an attempt to paint her as the real racist. He was amplified by Russian actors, which ran social media campaigns similarly designed to depress the black vote. One top Democrat told The Daily Beast that Team Clinton was caught off-guard by the investment Trump’s own campaign made in making “superpredators” a component of its late ad push prior to election day.
“It was certainly damaging,” said a Clinton campaign veteran. “And I personally also think we didn’t do a good enough job talking about her actual record.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) recounted how he was personally shocked to find out that Trump’s attacks weren’t just finding their way to African-American voters but actually resonating with them.
“I do go a barber at least twice a month and I talk to him as I did two days ago and on the morning of the election in 2016,” Clyburn said. “I walked into the shop and I said ‘Oliver, how does it look?’ And he said ‘I’m, telling you something. I’m shocked, but in the last few days many people coming in here are voting for Trump.’ I said, ‘WHAT!’ He said, ‘Yeah, these guys, plenty of them are voting for Trump and it’s all about mass incarceration and superpredators.’”
Owing to that experience, Clyburn said he would more proactively defend the ‘94 crime bill, which, he argued, was being falsely tagged with having codified some of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that actually came into being years prior. But he also expressed fear that Trump’s attempt to depress the black vote would have its desired outcome if others didn’t join him. Twice, he made a point to note that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Biden’s closest primary opponent, had voted for the legislation too.
“I would encourage [Biden] to speak out about it and Bernie Sanders, too. Both of them ought to lean into this,” said Clyburn. “History is my teaching. Everything to me is built on some historical context and because I know that is what happened in the last election, yes, I believe [Trump] is going to try and do it again.”
It’s not just Trump who is trying to paint Biden as bad for the African-American community. The National Rifle Association—a top White House ally—has been running Facebook ads since May 10 accusing the former VP of having a “not so ambiguous pro-segregation stance.”
America Rising, the Republican Party’s premier opposition research shop, has devoted significant energy to Biden’s role in shepherding the crime bill into law—and mocking his attempts to distance himself from mass incarceration.
The firm has compiled a wealth of research going back to the 1990s on Biden’s involvement, trumpeting quotes on an America Rising candidate profile that described the crime bill as Biden’s brainchild and quoting left-leaning media outlets that dubbed the law “a career-defining victory.”
When Biden attempted to distance himself from mass incarceration in the U.S., America Rising called it an attempt to “rewrite history” and tagged him with a Washington Post fact-check that found that Biden’s crime bill “set the tone” for future state policies that exacerbated America’s prison populations.
But the effort truly picked up more steam this past weekend. On Monday, as Trump wrapped up his high-profile trip to Japan, he took to Twitter to troll the Biden for the bill. By Tuesday, top Trump aides were following suit. “The 1994 Crime Bill was a TERRIBLE mistake,” the president’s campaign manager Brad Parscale posted to Twitter.
On Wednesday, the Trump 2020 National Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement that the “Biden-backed 1994 crime bill” had “disproportionately incarcerated black Americans and devastated families.”
So far, it’s not clear if Biden has figured out how, exactly, to respond. Asked by The Daily Beast if Biden or his 2020 staff had any comment on Trump’s remarks, the Biden campaign declined to comment for this story.
But if the former VP’s campaign wants to point to defenders of the law, it could just spotlight Trump’s own personal lawyer. Earlier this month, Rudy Giuliani tweeted his support of the 1994 crime bill and even called on Biden to not abandon the legislation.
Ironically, when Biden mocked Giuliani as “the most under-qualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency” during a Democratic debate in the 2008 primary, he bragged that former Mayor Giuliani was only able to cut crime in New York City because of “the Biden crime bill that became the Clinton crime bill.”