WASHINGTON — After President Donald Trump took office in 2017, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., started forging a relationship with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, which helped pave the way for a historic bipartisan federal prison sentencing overhaul.
The Senate on Tuesday night passed the First Step Act on an 87-12 roll call. House members are lined up to pass the bill later this week and send it to Trump to sign.
The relationship survived the January controversy when Durbin said Trump called some countries “shithole” nations during a White House meeting on immigration.
At the height of the uproar, Trump tweeted, “Dicky Durbin totally misrepresented what was said” at the meeting. “Deals can’t get made when there is no trust.”
By then, Durbin and Kushner, a senior White House adviser, had developed enough trust to keep moving ahead on an issue where they had found common ground — federal sentencing and prison reform. Durbin has been on the issue for some ten years.
Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the presidential daughter who is also a senior White House adviser, invited Durbin to a dinner party at their house in the Kalorama neighborhood on July 18, 2017 and again on Oct. 3, 2017, Durbin’s office confirmed.
So when the Trump hurricane hit Durbin last January, the Durbin-Kushner criminal justice reform alliance weathered the storm.
For Kushner, the criminal justice issue is personal.
In 2004, his father, Charles, a real estate developer, pled guilty to filing a false tax return, illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering. He served about two years in a federal prison. The U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the senior Kushner was Chris Christie, who would go on to become the New Jersey governor. That helps explain why Christie, an early Trump backer, never has landed a role in the administration.
Bipartisan efforts to reform the sentencing system took place during the Obama administration, working with, among others, the influential conservative Koch Brothers network. Nothing happened because legislation was stalled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The liberal Durbin has partnered with the conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on an issue that disproportionately impacts African-Americans and Hispanics. They were backed by a remarkable coalition of conservative and liberal groups who rarely agree on anything.
Durbin was trying to rectify a vote he said was one of his biggest mistakes — supporting, when he was in the House, a tough-on-crime measure that tied the hands of federal judges when it came to sentencing.
The First Step Act, when it becomes law, will impact nonviolent drug offenders and ends different sentences for crack and powdered cocaine, which ended up hitting minority offenders the hardest.
Durbin and Lee eventually cleared their first obstacle, winning the support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The Illinois and Utah senators “caused me to look very definitely (at) some problems that we have in sentencing and the value of prison reform,” Grassley said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“And so in 2015 I went to these two gentlemen and said, ‘could we sit down and talk about maybe putting together a bill that we could all support?”’
Durbin, at the same presser, said after getting Grassley on board, “We were stopped on the floor of the Senate by Mitch McConnell either because of memories of Willie Horton or the fact that his caucus was split over the issue. He just wouldn’t touch it and we were stuck.
“Then came a breakthrough I never expected. The election of Donald Trump as president. What does that have to do with this? He brought his son-in-law to town, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner has a passion for prison reform because of a family experience and he wasted no time getting involved and engaged in the effort.
“We worked with him throughout this whole endeavor.
“The net result of it last night is nothing short of a historic vote that really changes our outlook on our system of justice, for the first time in decades. And it’s a dramatic change. I think it reflects the fact that we realize that just getting muscular and tough on the war on drugs isn’t enough,” Durbin said.
The name of Willie Horton, an African-American violent criminal, is used as shorthand to describe racist political ads or attacks, stemming from a 1988 campaign ad for Republican George H.W. Bush portraying Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime.
Fears of being hit with a Willie Horton attack haunt politicians and have made criminal justice reform a hot-button political issue. Once Trump came out in support of the measure, McConnell relented. McConnell negotiated for some concessions and the blockade was lifted.
Each side compromised. Trump has a big victory. But Trump and Kushner needed Democrats, especially Durbin, to get the job done.