COLUMBIA, S.C. — President Donald Trump gave a keynote speech Friday on bipartisan criminal justice reform to a handpicked crowd at Benedict College, while protesters and MAGA-fans alike gathered outside the historically black institution’s gates.
“The more people I spoke with, the more clear it became that the system could be deeply unfair, contributing to a cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration,” Trump said before touting that his worked undid the 1994 Clinton crime law that disproportionately harmed the African-American community.
Trump’s hourlong speech at the 2020 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum came moments after he was recognized with an award for his leadership in passing the First Step Act, a bill aimed at releasing nonviolent offenders and helping to transition them back into society. The president signed the legislation last December. The award was presented by Florida state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican, and Mathew Charles, a beneficiary of the historic legislation.
“Three years ago I walked out of prison after serving 21 years for dealing crack cocaine. I had built my life to rehabilitation and serving others, found a job and had reconnected with friends and family,” Charles said. “Then out of nowhere, the powers that be claimed I was ineligible for release.
“After two years of freedom, I was sent back to serve another decade behind bars,” he said.
Charles was one of the first inmates freed because of the First Step Act, and thanked political leaders
for working to permanently secure his freedom. He noted the significantly harsher sentencing for dealing crack than for dealing cocaine and that a “generation of black men was practically erased.”
According to the Department of Justice, over 1,500 inmates like Charles have been released due to sentencing reductions, another 3,000 due to time-off for good behavior policy adjusting, 95 inmates received “compassionate release,’ and another 2,000 inmates were placed on home confinement which was also expanded by the First Step Act.
Other former inmates continued to pull at the heartstrings of the audience inside Little Theater as protests continued outside the gates and students were asked to stay inside their dorms with the exception of seven Burroughs Scholars from the Tyrone Adam Burroughs School of Business and Entrepreneurship and other student leaders who were able to attend the invite-only event.
The audience was roughly 25 percent students, according to Roslyn Clark Artis, Benedict College president, including student leaders from other colleges and universities. The rest was a mix of die-hard Trump supporters, Republican leadership in South Carolina and Black elected officials from the 2020 Bipartisan Justice Center who hosted the event.
This portion of the three-day-long forum, called “The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform,” was originally dedicated to providing 2020 presidential Republican candidates with a platform to address criminal justice reform and share their “second step.” However, the other Republican candidates declined the invitation, leaving Trump a solo slot that some fear may overshadow the Democratic candidates.
After President Trump was awarded the Bipartisan Justice Award, Democratic candidate Kamala Harris decided to protest the justice forum, reneging on her previously confirmed appearance. She won the same award in 2016.
“Not only does he circumvent the laws of our country and the principles of our constitution, but there is nothing in his career that is about justice, for justice or in celebration of justice,” her campaign said in a statement.
Trump admitted that criminal justice reform was not originally part of his campaign, but decided to join the movement when elected officials and religious leaders asked him to “fight on behalf of this forgotten community.”
“I knew criminal justice reform was not about politics. To this day I’m not sure if what I did was a popular right thing or an unpopular thing, but I know it was the right thing to do,” he said to applause.
In between the president’s praise of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, various mentions of the political “witch hunt” he has found himself at the center of, which he referred to earlier this week on Twitter as a “lynching,” and his claims of creating the lowest African American youth unemployment rate in history, the incumbent was met with mixed reviews.
With a banner on the side of a van parked across the street that read “Make Liberals Cry Again,” students being served their lunch inside their dorms and being asked to stay inside and a general uneasy feeling falling across the campus, some in the auditorium still found the event to be relatively successful.
“I think the president did a good job of outlining the need for historically black colleges and universities and is manifesting his commitment to HBCUs so we will stay the course and continue to work with him and across aisles, both Republican and Democrat, to ensure HCBUs get the resources they need to be successful,” President Artis said.
Before referencing Abraham Lincoln— and how that revered Republican leader freed the slaves —Trump emphasized the import roles Black people served in securing the independence of this country.
“At the founding of our republic, African-American heroes gave their lives for the founding of independence. In the next century leaders like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas escaped the evil of slavery and fought for the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that we are all created equal and that our rights come from God,” Trump said.
“African-American churches, civic organizations and HBCUs like this one, this great one … It’s a beauty, it’s a nice auditorium too by the way, I have to say … do you mind if we come back?
They helped lead the righteous struggle to help secure civil rights. African-Americans have given their blood sweat and tears for this nation,” he said.
The intimate crowd of less than 300 chanted “four more years” after Trump claimed that for African-Americans, the best is yet to come.
The president publicly asked each of his guest speakers and the former inmates in attendance to provide him with a list of other deserving “good people” in prison that they know, so he can help free them as well.
Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, welcomed the president to South Carolina’s capital city.
“This morning I sent an open letter from the mayor to the president asking for certain things, noted agreements and disagreements, but asking the president to respect the grounds that he stood on,” he said. “I think he did well today. Getting people to focus on the world in which we live right now, it’s so partisan. And bipartisan solutions that actually help improve people’s lives are a huge success.”
Benedict College, a private school with more than 2,000 students, saw only a small percentage of its students were allowed access to the day’s festivities. But President Trump’s first appearance at an HBCU was historic and can be considered a bipartisan win for the president.