However, it wasn’t clear in what ways the sponsor was no longer affiliated with the event, because the group maintained a presence there throughout the day.
Harris (Calif.) and nine other Democratic presidential candidates were to speak on criminal justice reform at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, S.C. But Harris announced late Friday that she would be skipping the event and in a statement accused organizers of “papering over” Trump’s record of “decades of celebrating mass incarceration, pushing the death penalty for innocent Black Americans, rolling back police accountability measures and racist behavior that puts people’s lives at risk.”
“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’s inviting only 10 students of the college to attend Trump’s speech and filling the audience with his supporters. Classes were canceled and the students on campus were encouraged to stay in their dorms while Trump was there.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, in the midst of the forum, Harris said the college dropped the event’s sponsor, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, and opened the event to the larger student body.
In the announcement reversing her boycott, Harris included a statement from one of the forum’s 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.” That part of the weekend was not a 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center event, he said.
But the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center continued to tweet about the event Saturday, sharing several photos of Harris speaking. And outside the auditorium where the event was being held, it was unclear what changes might have been made to reflect the supposed removal of group as a sponsor.
No banners displayed the group’s name. Volunteers for the event wore purple and yellow shirts that read “BC VOICE BC VOTE” — short for Benedict College.
The only external evidence of sponsorship was a typed note on one of the doors advising attendees that entering the area meant they could be photographed or filmed for “2020 Bipartisan Justice Center marketing material.”
The Harris campaign and the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did the mayor’s office.
Instead of attending the forum, Harris had planned to hold a separate community discussion on criminal justice reform — an issue that has been politically fraught for her, given her background as San Francisco’s district attorney and as California attorney general. Though Harris argues that her record makes her uniquely qualified to address the systemic problems, her critics say she was once part of the problem.
At the event Saturday, Harris said she was upset that Trump had been honored.
“I just couldn’t believe that Donald Trump would be given an award as it related to criminal justice reform,” she said. “This is somebody that has disrespected the voices that have been present for decades for criminal justice reform. The people that have sacrificed to create justice in this system.”
None of the other Democratic presidential candidates invited to the forum had planned to skip it.
After Harris initially dropped out, 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.”’
Hannah Burton, a sophomore at Benedict College, said the president’s visit disrupted activities on campus all week.
On Thursday, some classes were canceled and the cafeteria was closed. On Friday, the day Trump was on campus, most students were told to stay in their dorms and avoid walking around campus.
Burton and others who lived in dorms near the building where the president spoke were told they couldn’t be in their dorms at all on Friday morning. Most of her classmates went home for the weekend to avoid the chaos, she said.
Trump addressed the forum 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 the time that could be shaved from a prisoner’s sentence for good behavior and increased access to post-incarceration 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 largely consisting of his 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 has 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 over her announcement that she would cancel 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.”
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Amy B Wang contributed reporting from Columbia, S.C.