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President Trump’s meeting with Kanye West was really about masking his record on criminal justice reform

Trump wants “stop and frisk” policies brought to Chicago. And his attorney general is trying to stop major reforms in police departments nationwide.

Kanye West, center, during a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on October 11, 2018.
Oliver Contreras - Pool/Getty Images

On Thursday, Kanye West met with President Donald Trump in the White House to purportedly discuss “criminal justice reform.”

During the meeting, Kanye discussed the MAGA hat (“it made me feel like Superman”), a hydrogen powered airplane, the concept of time (“a myth”), the 13th Amendment (“a trap door”), and black violence. (“As black people we have to take responsibility for what we’re doing. We kill each other more than police officers.”)

Kanye’s only criminal justice reform-related comments were a mention of pardons, police brutality (which focused on how police officers might be reacting to perceived disrespect — the solution is “love”), and a brief moment during his conversation with Trump in which he decried “stop and frisk” policies — to which the president said, “[Police] have to do something.”

At this very moment, thousands of conservatives and liberals are working across the aisle to do something, anything, to make America’s criminal justice system one that abides by the Constitution of the United States and the wishes of many in the country.

Even some prominent people have attempted to work on the cause, including Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, who has a far better track record on criminal justice. By contrast, Kanye has no lengthy track record of interest in the subject outside of some music condemning mass incarceration.

Still, celebrities have successfully used their notoriety to shine a light on an important cause, helping to put pressure on politicians to act. But this wasn’t that. West’s visit to the White House was a sham.

Trump liked the optics of a black celebrity from Chicago standing with him on criminal justice. In the truest form of what some would call “tokenism,” Trump proudly pushed forward a single man to represent an entire community, and masked the real efforts of his administration to either slow walk or outright reject real criminal justice reform efforts.

Jeff Sessions is not a criminal justice reform crusader

Two days before West’s visit to the White House, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would file a statement of interest in court to stop efforts by the Chicago Police Department — in West’s hometown — to enact a major overhaul in how officers do their jobs.

The changes, which include ensuring officers record when and why they draw their weapons, came on the heels of the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by former police officer Jason Van Dyke. (Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder just last week.)

In a statement, Sessions said that the city requires “proactive” policing, adding, “It is imperative that the city not repeat the mistakes of the past — the safety of Chicago depends on it.”

On Monday, Trump feted the actions of police, and said that he had told Sessions to go to Chicago and “straighten out the terrible shooting wave.”

He went on to praise stop-and-frisk policies: “I’ve told them to work with local authorities to try to change the horrible deal the city of Chicago’s entered into with ACLU, which ties law enforcement’s hands, and to strongly consider ‘stop and frisk.’ It works. And it was meant for problems like Chicago. It was meant for it. Stop and frisk!”

(For the record, crime is down in Chicago this year — a fact Kanye also mentioned in his discussion with the president.)

The Trump administration has been stymied on criminal justice — by its own backers

Trump has given lip service to the idea of major reforms to America’s criminal justice system, saying on Fox and Friends on Thursday that he would overrule Sessions to pass comprehensive reforms, adding: “There has to be a reform because it’s very unfair right now. It’s very unfair to African Americans. It’s very unfair to everybody. And it’s also very costly.”

But in reality, Trump has shown no willingness to stand up to either Sessions or so-called “law and order” hardliners like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).

According to Axios, both Sessions and Cotton supported Trump’s decision not to publicly endorse a prison and sentencing reform bill before the November midterms, legislation that had the support of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to put forward the bill only if he has sixty votes in favor of it, refusing to commit to a vote.

The Trump administration has given signs of pushing back against criminal justice reform efforts at the state level — for example, attempting to curtail marijuana legalization, arguing in documents that “there is an urgent need to message the facts about the negative impacts of marijuana use, production, and trafficking on national health, safety, and security.”

Sessions has argued repeatedly against consent agreements that could curtail police brutality and even argued in favor of “broken windows” policing and stop-and-frisk policies that cities like New York have largely abandoned. He also revived civil asset forfeiture programs that take money and property away from people who may not have even been charged with a crime — and McConnell declined to allow amendments passed by the House to stop that practice from getting into the omnibus spending bill.

Conservatives like Vikrant Reddy of the Charles Koch Institute and others have been on the leading edge of criminal justice reform — some rethinking their own ideas on police brutality and even calling out Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) who attempt to use the issue of police reform as a club against Democrats. Others, like National Review’s Kyle Smith, have begrudgingly acknowledged that stop and frisk was an unjust policy (and that conservatives who praised it were wrong):

Nevertheless, de Blasio was correct in saying the city could withstand a sharp decrease in stop-and-frisk. And he was right to draw attention to the social cost of the practice; more than 80 percent of those subjected to stop-and-frisk since the start of the Bloomberg administration were, according to the NYPD, completely innocent. That means hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were unjustly subjected to embarrassment or even humiliation.

But somehow, none of this made it into Kanye’s discussion with Trump about criminal justice reform.

Nothing about ending qualified immunity policies that helped the police officer who shot Daniel Shaver in 2016 — who was crawling on the ground and begging for his life — get away with “police murder.”

Nothing about Andrew Scott, who was shot to death by a police officer who never identified himself — another police officer who went unpunished.

And nothing about the death of Botham Jean, who was killed in early September by an off-duty police officer who allegedly wandered into the wrong apartment. Nor were police officers who have gotten arrested themselves multiple times and yet still find themselves on the job discussed.

But Kanye wasn’t in the White House to discuss Jean, or Scott, or Shaver, or how rare it is for police officers who commit crimes to be held accountable, or even the very subject of criminal justice reform itself, from policing to sentencing to prisons to recidivism and voter rights for ex-felons who have done their time. He was there to be Kanye West, a very famous person who likes Donald Trump, a person who enjoys being liked.

Though we did get something about hydrogen-powered airplanes. So that’s something.