Republicans eye police reform — and search for Trump’s blessing

Congressional Republicans are under pressure for perhaps the first time in decades to make a serious effort at police reform. But don’t expect them to take the plunge without President Donald Trump.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — the lone black Republican in the Senate — briefed his colleagues Tuesday on ways to improve policing just a few hours after Trump suggested an elderly Buffalo protester injured by the police might be antifa. Scott, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to lead the caucus’ effort, then met with senior White House officials including chief of staff Mark Meadows, adviser Jared Kushner and senior aide Ja’Ron Smith.

And Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Trump’s top conservative allies in the House, is aiming to release his own plan to improve police practices by the end of this week.

But Scott said he’s on a “separate track” from the White House. And other Republicans said Tuesday afternoon that Trump himself is not yet intimately involved in negotiations on what could become law.

“Donald Trump … has great respect for Tim Scott. He looks to him a lot for this kind of a thing,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). Trump “isn’t going to lead on it right now. But he could get behind it.”

Republicans have had mixed success waiting for Trump to get them across the finish line on controversial issues. Add in a pandemic and a presidential campaign in which Trump is touting his law-and-order bona fides and a deal faces steep odds. But without Trump, police reform doesn’t have a shot in a critical moment for the movement.

The president’s endorsement of sentencing reform legislation got it passed in 2018 despite McConnell’s reluctance. Last year, the White House abandoned an effort to enhance background checks after a spate of mass shootings.

Efforts to cut deals with Trump on immigration and infrastructure also crashed and burned. And after a Trump veto threat led to the longest government shutdown ever in 2019, the GOP learned not to get ahead of a president who has repeatedly undercut their plans. Trump’s firm hold on the party also continues to dictate Republicans’ approach to any police debate.

But the fact that Republicans on both ends of the Capitol feel pressure to craft their own policing proposals — even in the absence of a clear green light from Trump — reflects how rapidly the political terrain has shifted underneath the GOP. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hoped Senate Republicans could propose ideas that “suggest that we hear what people are saying and we want to do better at this.”

Meadows expressed some optimism about reaching a consensus. “We want to let our actions speak louder than our words,” he said after meeting with Scott. “We’re hopeful for something sooner than later.”

Scott presented Senate Republicans with proposals centered on improving federal data collection on the use of force and no-knock warrants as well as training for police. It does not include a federal chokehold ban; GOP senators may also add a long-stalled anti-lynching bill to the mix to evade Sen. Rand Paul’s procedural objections.

Regardless, the GOP approach appears far narrower than House Democrats’ sweeping plan, which would end police chokeholds, make it easier to sue police officers, prohibit racial profiling, make lynching a federal hate crime and end no-knock raids, among other things.

In just the two weeks since the killing of George Floyd, public opinion has swung in favor of police reforms, while several GOP lawmakers have marched alongside “Black Lives Matter” protesters. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Trump’s inflammatory comments about the Buffalo protester and treatment of demonstrators in D.C. also raise doubts about how committed Trump might be to police reforms. Still, in an election year anything could happen with the mercurial president — especially with the GOP eager to shed its image as a party that appeals mostly to older, white males.

Several close Trump allies, like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, said Trump could conceivably embrace a product from the Senate. And GOP lawmakers have become well practiced in trying to win Trump over.

“Any time you want to pass a bill you hope to have the president’s signature, or it can’t become law. We regularly make proposals of our ideas and then try to persuade him that they’re good,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

The president says he’s open to gentler police tactics but declined to name specifics. And his Twitter feed in recent days has been focused on calling for “law and order” — including backing up the Buffalo police officers who shoved a 75-year-old protester and reiterating his calls to bring in the National Guard to deal with at-times violent protests.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president had not reviewed legislation put forward by Democrats but drew the line at provisions that would end qualified immunity, which protects police officers from civil lawsuits. McEnany said it was a “nonstarter” because it could result in “police pulling back.”

The president met recently with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, the only African American Cabinet member, to discuss policy ideas, per an administration official. Trump also held a roundtable with law enforcement officers from around the country to discuss reform ideas on Monday. Still, he lashed out at calls by some progressives to “defund the police.”

“We won’t be dismantling our police. We won’t be disbanding our police. We won’t be ending our police force in a city,” Trump said.

There’s also deep antipathy among Republicans to having the federal government dictate to local police forces, hence Scott’s state-based approach — which Democrats argue makes for weaker reforms.

“The people who have the most direct control over what the police do or don’t do is the police chief, or the city council and the mayor. And I don’t know why people look to Washington,” Cornyn said.

Further complicating the push for police reform, the GOP — which has long been resistant to curbing police powers — is eager to echo Trump’s law-and-order message and align themselves with law enforcement ahead of the November election.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a top Trump ally, is readying a resolution condemning the “defund the police” movement. GOP members on the House Judiciary Committee plan to call the sister of a slain police officer as well as Fox News commentator Dan Bongino — an outspoken defender of law enforcement — as witnesses for a high-stakes hearing on police brutality Wednesday.

On the House side, GOP leaders have signaled they’re open to tying federal funds to better police training and ensuring that bad officers can be removed. But Republicans are complaining that their Democratic colleagues crafted a policing package without their input, even after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declared he was “ready to work” on the issue. That’s one reason why House Republicans are pressing ahead with their own proposal.

Even if Republicans in the House and Senate, along with Trump, were able to come up with a single plan, it’s hard to imagine a compromise with Democrats, who are also under pressure from their base to go big. That’s all the more true because it’s an election year.

“My fear is that both camps will retreat…put forward competing proposals, and then nothing will get done,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has backed police reforms in the past but is now angering both parties over his resistance to an anti-lynching bill. “So I am concerned.”

Marianne LeVine and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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