President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to participate in a presidential candidate forum focused on improving the criminal justice system in the United States.
His participation will bring him to the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, where he will share billing with half a dozen Democrats vying to replace him in 2020.
Two sources familiar with planning for the event confirmed Trump’s attendance to The State Friday afternoon.
The White House also confirmed first to McClatchy DC that Trump intends to participate, and later in the day specified that he will be delivering a speech on Friday, Oct. 25, in a setting separate from the Democratic candidates.
The lead-up to Trump’s decision to join the program at Benedict, which will run from Oct. 25-27, was closely guarded by organizers, who feared the president would either change his mind or alienate those who had already committed to attending or participating.
Though Trump had been invited from the very beginning along with every other candidate for president, there was initially little expectation he would choose to put himself in a scenario that could quickly turn politically toxic.
Democratic contenders will be sure to speak about criminal justice issues through a partisan lens as they treat their participation as a de facto campaign stop in the critical early primary state.
And soon after learning the news that Trump planned to participate in the event as well, candidates were making it clear that they would also be using the venue to draw contrast between, and directly attack, Trump.
“Donald Trump still believes the Central Park 5 are guilty and refuses to adequately apologize for stoking racism in the wake of a terrible crime,” said Jerusalem Demsas, the South Carolina campaign spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., referring to how Trump called for the death penalty for five young men of color who were ultimately exonerated after being convicted for assault of a white jogger in 1989.
“Our campaign looks forward to contrasting Trump’s commitment to dividing our country with racist rhetoric to Kamala Harris’ commitment to unifying us and moving forward with comprehensive criminal justice reform,” Demsas continued.
Trump also runs the risk of being embarrassed in attending the forum at Benedict. The conference is expected to include the first ever HBCU “straw poll,” where Trump could face a very low show of support: According to a recent poll from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, he has a 4% approval rating among African Americans.
“Trump’s visit to SC means two things: His support and (U.S. Sen. Lindsey) Graham’s support is not as strong as it was,” Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, tweeted.
Yet the conference, described as “exclusively focused on the future of criminal justice reform after the First Step Act,” ultimately represents a chance for Trump to speak publicly and substantively about the role he played in getting that criminal justice reform bill signed into law late last year.
The new law boosts rehabilitation programs for federal prisoners and gives judges greater discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses. Thousands of inmates have been released as a result of this bill.
South Carolina’s two Republican U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, were both closely involved in negotiations leading up to final passage of one of the only truly bipartisan pieces of legislation that has advanced in the Trump era.
For a president who has been polarizing around race issues — whose confrontational style has made it difficult for members of both parties to pass any substantive piece of legislation — the First Step Act represents a significant accomplishment Trump should want to highlight as he fights for reelection amid an impeachment inquiry.
The forum is being sponsored by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, which bills itself as “the only nationwide coalition of Black Republicans, Democrats and Independents focused on criminal justice reform,” in conjunction with Benedict College.
Co-hosts include Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, the National Black Police Association, the African American Mayors Association, local elected officials with the National Black Caucus and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
On Friday afternoon, Benedict College president Roslyn Clark Artis released a statement predicting the event will “serve as tangible evidence for our students of how diversity of thought and positive social action work together in the democracy of our country” as observers “witness, first hand, this historical bipartisan engagement.”
In addition to Trump and Harris, expected participants include former Vice President Joe Biden, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, ex-Housing Secretary Julian Castro, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Maayan Schechter and Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.