President Trump has repeatedly promised to crack down on fentanyl dealers — even calling for the death penalty for some of them — and on members of MS-13, the notorious gang whose members he recently called “animals.” Yet last week, Trump announced his support for legislation that mandates the early release from federal prison of most federally incarcerated fentanyl dealers and MS-13 gang members, and that sets shorter sentences for many of them, as well. (I will discuss specifics of this legislation, known as FIRST STEP, in Part Two of this series).
How did this happen? Does Trump know what’s in the legislation?
Maybe. Or maybe son-in-law Jared Kushner sold him a bill of goods by obscuring the details (to put it as kindly as I can). That seems to be how he got the Fraternal Order of Police to endorse the bill. Fortunately, he was unable to pull the wool over the eyes of the other major law enforcement groups. They have come out against FIRST STEP.
It’s difficult to say which would be more appalling: Trump backing major criminal law legislation without knowing what it says or Trump backing leniency for some of the worst federal felons in violation of his consistent promises and rhetoric.
Either way, with Trump’s support the legislation now stands a good chance of being enacted. It’s hardly a done deal, though — not in this session of Congress.
Time is running short, and Sen. Tom Cotton is campaigning vigorously against what he calls “the jailbreak.” Majority Leader McConnell — who well remembers the bad old days of vast judicial sentencing discretion for liberal judges, ridiculously short sentences, and sky-high crimes rates, and who understands the long-term political fallout from such a regime — still seems skeptical about jailbreak legislation.
McConnell made sure FIRST STEP did not reach the Senate floor before the election. He also blocked leniency legislation in 2016.
McConnell was wise on both occasions. 74 percent of the public opposes shorter sentences for drug felons.
But where is the wisdom in passing legislation this unpopular in any session of Congress? Sure, Trump’s backing will help shift public opinion somewhat, at least in the short-term. Trump famously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Perhaps he believes the same thing goes when the shooting is performed by MS-13 members (for example) released from prison early under legislation he supports.
The GOP should not be this sanguine. Rising crime rates and episodes in which federal felons released early under FIRST STEP commit well-publicized crimes can be political poison. Think of all the mileage Trump got from a handful of cases in which illegal immigrants who should have been deported committed high-profile murders.
Republicans who vote for FIRST STEP will be vulnerable to the same kind of attack — certainly in primaries and, in some races, even in general elections. And the GOP will be unable to claim the honorable and politically powerful title of “law and order party” if a Republican Senate passes and a Republican president signs “jailbreak” legislation.
One would think that before taking such a dangerous leap, Republicans would demand hearings on FIRST STEP. Tom Cotton has. But there will be no hearings — not if the legislation is to be enacted this year, as Team Leniency, led by Jared Kushner, is hell-bent on accomplishing.
This is vintage left-wing legislating — the kind that produced Obamacare. Only this time, Republicans are as eager as the Dems to protect their baby from scrutiny.
In this respect, they are wise. FIRST STEP cannot withstand scrutiny. I’ll have more to say about this in Part Two.