COLUMBIA, S.C. — President Trump, in a speech at a historically black college here Friday, said the bipartisan criminal justice overhaul he signed into law last year could lead to further reform of the system.
“You fought to fix a broken system,” Trump said after listing people involved in the effort. “You sought to confront inequality and stop injustice, and you worked to restore hope and optimism where they’re really needed the most and where there was very little.”
Trump and his allies billed the speech, at Benedict College in Columbia, as a chance for the president to step outside the friendly confines of his supporter base and pitch his administration’s record on criminal justice reform and black employment directly to a black audience.
But only about 10 students from Benedict were given tickets to the invitation-only event, which had room for about 300 attendees, said Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin of Columbia. More than half of the seats were reserved for guests and allies of the administration, organizers said.
The ticket distribution was first reported by McClatchy DC.
Trump’s speech opened a three-day event at the college, billed as the “Second Step Presidential Justice Forum.” Leading Democratic presidential candidates will attend the forum Saturday and Sunday to pitch their criminal justice plans, including former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The forum’s name is a reference to the bipartisan First Step Act, which Trump signed in December. That law has helped thousands of federal inmates secure early release under new sentencing guidelines and has been a key part of the White House’s pitch for black support.
Overhauling the criminal justice system has, in recent years, been one of the rare areas of bipartisan agreement in an increasingly polarized Congress, and that consensus has spilled into the presidential race. Democrats making the progressive argument for reform have cited the system’s disproportionate impact on black, Latino, and Native American communities.
Conservatives, while avoiding portraying the system as inherently prejudiced, have often focused on the financial burden mass incarceration places on governments.
In the Democratic primary, black voters play a critical role in selecting the party’s nominee, especially in South Carolina, an early-voting primary state where they make up more than half the party’s electorate. But even the slightest downturn in black turnout in a general election can be fatal for a Democratic presidential candidate, and Trump and his allies have expressed some hope that they can peel off enough support from black voters — or keep them home altogether — to make an impact in battleground states in 2020.
In 2016, a decrease in black turnout in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia helped Trump win key swing states by razor-thin margins, propelling him to an Electoral College victory.
The Trump administration has sought to support historically black colleges and universities, increasing federal support by 14.3 percent. And Trump spoke to black educators last month at the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week conference.
But Trump has also made attacks on lawmakers of color central to his reelection strategy. This summer, for example, he lashed out at Representative Elijah E. Cummings on Twitter, referring to Cummings’s majority-black district in Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
Cummings, who died last week, on Thursday became the first African-American elected official to lie in state in the US Capitol.
About an hour before Trump’s appearance, more than 100 anti-Trump protesters gathered near the campus. The protest included few Benedict students; it mostly included local residents and staff members of the state Democratic Party and some of the Democratic presidential campaigns, who were preparing for their candidates to arrive Saturday.
Tim Bupp, a 62-year-old South Carolina pastor, held a sign that showed a lynched black person hanging from a tree. It was a reference to Trump’s tweet this week comparing the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into him a lynching.
“The fact that he compares the inquiry to a lynching and then has the audacity to come to a black college? Insane,” said Bupp, who is white. “He doesn’t even apologize. He just doubles down.”
Michelle Thomas, 42, who is black and lives in Columbia, said Trump’s lynching remark motivated her to protest. “That was the final straw for me,” she said.
She said she was also upset that Senator Lindsey Graham, one of her state’s two Republican senators, had defended Trump’s remarks. “Trump’s actions got Trump in this situation,” she said. “No one else.”