“Donald Trump is a lawless President. Not only does he circumvent the laws of our country and the principles of our Constitution, but there is nothing in his career that is about justice, for justice, or in celebration of justice,” Harris said.
Harris also took issue with the White House only inviting 10 students from the college to attend Trump’s speech, while filling the audience with his supporters. Classes were canceled and the students on campus were reportedly encouraged to stay in their dorms while Trump was there.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, in the midst of the forum, the college dropped the event’s sponsor, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, and opened up the event to the larger student body to participate.
In the announcement ending her boycott, Harris included a statement from the forum organizers:
“I am excited to welcome presidential candidates to a criminal justice forum dialogue which will allow Benedict College students and the wider community to have full participation,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. “I want to be clear that the Candidate Forums are hosted by myself and Benedict College. This portion of the weekend is not a 20/20 Presidential Justice Center event.”
Instead of attending the forum, Harris had planned to hold a separate community discussion on criminal justice reform — an issue that’s been politically fraught for her given her prosecutorial background as San Francisco’s district attorney and as California attorney general. While Harris argues her record makes her uniquely qualified to address the systematic problems, her critics say she was once part of the problem.
None of the other Democratic presidential candidates invited to the forum were skipping it.
After Harris initially dropped out, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a leading voice on criminal justice reform in the Senate, tweeted, “I saw what happened today. And I, for one, will be there tomorrow. I have some things I think they need to hear from me — directly.”
On Saturday morning, Booker also criticized the event for giving Trump “a platform unchecked for close to an hour” and for allowing “him to create some illusion of support from this community when, in fact, he excluded it.”’
Trump addressed the forum on Friday and received the Bipartisan Justice Award for signing into law the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that eased mandatory minimums for drug offenses, increased how many days could be shaved from a prisoner’s sentence for good behavior and increased access to post-jail rehabilitation services to curb recidivism.
Unlike the Democrats, who took questions from the audience, Trump gave a winding speech for more than an hour to a crowd of mostly Trump supporters, who chanted “four more years,” as he spoke about how he, not the Democrats, was the best choice to lift up African Americans.
“All my life, I’ve been committed to advancing fairness and opportunity for the African American community,” Trump said.
He also sought to relate to their challenges with the criminal justice system by likening it to the investigations he’s faced.
“You know that, you see what’s going on with the witch hunt. It’s a terrible thing that’s going on in our country. No crimes there, it’s an investigation in search of a crime,” Trump said. “But in America, you’re innocent until proven guilty and we don’t have investigations in search of that crime.”
Trump slammed Harris on Saturday morning for canceling her appearance.
“Badly failing presidential candidate @KamalaHarris will not go to a very wonderful largely African American event today because yesterday I received a major award, at the same event, for being able to produce & sign into law major Criminal Justice Reform legislation, which will greatly help the African American community (and all other communities), and which was unable to get done in past administrations despite a tremendous desire for it,” Trump tweeted.
Harris hit back on Twitter, writing, “My whole life I’ve fought for justice and for the people — something you’d know nothing about. The only part of criminal justice you can claim credit for is the ‘criminal’ part.”