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Trump’s attack on Joe Biden over the 1994 crime bill, explained

Trump made a bad-faith attempt to drive a wedge between Joe Biden and black voters.

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States
Biden and Trump at Trump’s inauguration.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump took aim at Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden for leading passage of the 1994 crime bill as a senator, criticizing him in a pair of tweets posted on Memorial Day while Trump was in Japan for a diplomatic visit.

“....Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing,” Trump wrote in the first tweet. “That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!”

Just over an hour later, Trump followed up with another tweet claiming that “[a]nyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected.”

“In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you,” Trump continued. “I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform.”

Trump’s tweets are clearly an effort to attack Biden where it could hurt. Though Biden’s criminal justice positions were considered mainstream among Democrats — even black Democrats — at the time, new movements like Black Lives Matter have sprung up and asked the party to reevaluate and confront its tough-on-crime past. But Trump’s line of attack is a bit rich coming from a president who has recently praised China for executing drug dealers and called for the death penalty to be swiftly doled out to people who shoot police officers.

Bad faith aside, the strategy behind Trump’s tweets is clear. It harkens back to his 2016 attacks on Hillary Clinton, drawing attention to her “superpredators” line from 1996 to depress African American turnout. Trump is now trying to sour African Americans on Biden.

The 1994 crime bill, briefly explained

The “1994 Crime Bill” Trump referred to was a bipartisan measure called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. As CNN detailed after Clinton expressed regret in 2015 about signing the bill, the legislation “included the federal ‘three strikes’ provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes.” The omnibus bill made federal grants available to states that adopted “tough on crime” laws as well as instituting a semi-automatic rifle ban and the Violence Against Women Act.

The crime bill came at a time when violent crime rates in American cities were skyrocketing, and policies aimed at cracking down were popular on both sides of the aisle. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) supported it. But the bill in and of itself contributed little to America’s mass incarceration problem, mainly because states preside over most of the vast majority of the US criminal system, not the federal government.

In 1994, Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and played a key role in getting the crime bill through that chamber of Congress. It’s long been something he hasn’t been shy about championing. During his 2008 presidential run, he even referred to the bill on his website as the “Biden Crime Law.” As my colleague German Lopez has explained, Biden’s support for punitive criminal justice measures during that era often went further than Republicans. He helped write and pass legislation creating sentencing disparities that resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, and laws that increased police powers.

Despite what Trump suggested in his Memorial Day tweets, Biden has expressed remorse for his “tough on crime” past. In recent years, Black Lives Matter and other groups have helped make criminal justice reform a central issue among Democrats, and Biden has expressed some degree of regret about this aspect of his record. From Lopez’s aforementioned explainer:

In 2008, [Biden] backed the Second Chance Act, which provides monitoring and counseling services to former prison inmates. In his last few years in the Senate, he supported the full elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. (The disparity was reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 in 2010 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.)

Biden even offered somewhat of an apology during a 2008 Senate hearing:

“Many have argued that this 100-to-1 disparity is arbitrary, unnecessary, and unjust, and I agree. And I might say at the outset in full disclosure, I am the guy that drafted this legislation years ago with a guy named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was the senator from New York at the time. And crack was new. It was a new ‘epidemic’ that we were facing. And we had at that time extensive medical testimony talking about the particularly addictive nature of crack versus powder cocaine. And the school of thought was that we had to do everything we could to dissuade the use of crack cocaine. And so I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then, because I think the disparity is way out of line.”

There are legitimate questions surrounding Biden’s criminal justice record that he will have to address during his campaign, including his support for the crime bill. Given Trump’s record, however, he is probably not the best person to raise them.

Trump almost certainly would’ve supported the crime bill

Trump does deserve some credit for signing the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill he referenced in his tweets. That bill — known as the First Step Act and championed by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner — “allows thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison and could cut many more prison sentences in the future,” as Lopez explained after Trump touted it during his most recent State of the Union speech.

But Trump’s decision to sign that bill was a bit of an aberration, following decades in which Trump portrayed himself as being as tough on crime as they come. (He also identified as a Democrat and donated to many Democratic candidates during much of this period.) In addition to supporting an expansion of capital punishment, Trump has publicly encouraged police to be rough with criminal suspects. He has tried to create an impression that violent crime in American cities was out of control when he took office — recall that “American carnage” was a theme of his inaugural address — even though data shows it has steadily declined since the era of the 1994 crime bill.

Trump himself has never apologized for taking out a full paper ad in the New York Daily News in 1989 calling for the execution of a group of teens called the Central Park Five who were suspected of involvement in a brutal rape but were later exonerated. Trump steadfastly refused to apologize when it became a campaign issue in 2016 — 14 years after the actual rapist confessed, with DNA evidence as confirmation — telling CNN that “[t]he fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”

For Trump, however, ideological consistency is less valuable than seizing an opportunity to attack a political opponent. Consider how he originally expressed support for invading Iraq in 2002, only to turn around and pretend he always opposed doing so years later. And so even though Trump’s history suggests he likely would’ve supported the 1994 crime bill, he has no shame about using it as a pretext to attack Biden.

Biden’s support among African American voters is currently strong. Trump is hoping it doesn’t stay that way.

Trump’s claim that “African Americans will not be able to vote for” Biden is at odds with polling showing that he’s currently leading among minority Democratic voters. A Fox News poll released earlier this month showed Biden’s support among non-white Democrats at 33 percent — more than twice as high as Bernie Sanders, who is polling second among the Democratic contenders in that demographic at 14 percent. Trump, meanwhile, had an approval rating among blacks of just 12 percent in March — a percentage that’s actually higher than the 8 percent of black Americans who voted for him in 2016.

Trump’s main message to black Americans during that campaign was to remind them of socioeconomic disparities that negatively impact their lives and ask them, “What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump? … What the hell do you have to lose?” As president, he’s consistently talked about rising employment rates among African Americans, a trend that actually began under the Obama administration.

Trump is clearly hoping to replicate the success of his 2016 campaign, which reportedly ran ads meant to discourage black voters from turning out by reminding them of Clinton’s “superpredators” line. Trump’s attack on Biden indicates that he’ll pursue a similar strategy this time around.