Police reform efforts face highest hurdle: Bitter Washington inertia

President Donald Trump took his first concrete steps to address growing national outcry over police brutality even as he offered a staunch defense of law enforcement that left little question about his allegiances. CNN's Jim Acosta reports.

Posted: Jun 17, 2020 12:51 PM
Updated: Jun 17, 2020 12:51 PM

The Black Lives Matter movement has changed American life and custom more than most people thought possible, but it is increasingly doubtful whether fractured Washington, rocked by treacherous election-year politics, will be able to match its historic sweep.

Statues commemorating a racist past have tumbled across the globe, a car in BLM livery streaked around a NASCAR track and Americans of all races braved a pandemic to march for justice in a stirring example of people power. But the entrenched divisions and muted ambition of the country's institutional politics, steeped in the bitterness of a post-impeachment capital, threaten to limit the scope of police reform.

President Donald Trump did unveil significant moves Tuesday in an executive order, but critics said it fell short of being adequate for such a moment. Democrats on Capitol Hill are expected Wednesday to send much broader measures -- including an outright ban on chokeholds in arrests, as opposed to the President's recommendation for voluntary compliance by police departments -- to the House of Representatives for a full vote next week.

But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made clear the Democratic bill has no hope on his side of the Capitol, leaving a GOP draft bill by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in the spotlight that Democrats say is too weak. Scott and McConnell publicly unveiled that legislation at a news conference earlier Wednesday, just a half hour ahead of the House Judiciary Committee's markup of the Democrats' bill.

In a sign of just how much pressure lawmakers are facing to act, McConnell promised swift action on the bill which could set up a vote as soon as next week, moving up from a previously floated timeline of addressing the issue after the July 4 holiday. McConnell will still need at least some Senate Democrats to sign on in order to break a filibuster, and the Democratic plan in the House is also expected to get its own vote next week.

The fate of police reform and a political argument that is now certain to significantly shape November's presidential and congressional elections may now depend on the capacity of grass roots political momentum to shake divided Washington out of its habitual inertia, and the pressure that can be brought to bear especially on vulnerable Senate Republicans who are feeling the heat from their constituents.

The power of the pressure for change was evident in Trump's appearance in the Rose Garden of the White House in an event that also reflected his political balancing act as he was surrounded by police leaders.

"Today is about pursuing common sense and fighting -- fighting for a cause like we seldom get the chance to fight for," the President said. But then he immediately detracted from his reformist tone when he added: "We have to find common ground. But I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to (defund) dismantle, and dissolve our police departments, especially now when we've achieved the lowest recorded crime rates in recent history."

Rambling falsehoods

Before his speech, the President met privately with relatives of victims of police violence in a session that sources said was a sincere and heartfelt effort at showing understanding. But the executive action was far less sweeping than its billing and was immediately undercut by Trump's harsh "law and order" rhetoric and a rambling politicized speech littered with his usual falsehoods about the record of the Obama administration before he signed it. His remarks for instance came with a new threat to turn National Guard troops on protesters and appeared to oppose the toppling of statues of historic Americans who fought for the Confederacy when he said "we must build on our heritage, not tear it down."

The President's plan includes a new federal database designed to prevent police officers with records of brutality moving to different jurisdictions after they are targeted by complaints. That provision was praised by CNN commentator Van Jones -- who worked with the White House on an earlier successful criminal justice reform effort. Jones said that the "floor is higher than it has been. There is movement in the direction of a database for bad cops."

But the measure is heavily incentive-driven and is insufficiently concrete for critics who see it as falling well short of what the circumstances, amid a national reckoning on race sparked by the death of George Floyd, require. The American Civil Liberties Union called it "meager." Amnesty International complained the measure was a "band-aid for a bullet wound" and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden accused Trump of an "insufficient" effort to piece back together elements of the Obama-Biden agenda.

The President's appearance in the White House demonstrated an apparent recognition that there is a strong political imperative for Trump to show, if belatedly, that he understands the mood of the country -- especially as he tries to win back more moderate, suburban voters. But his conduct also showed how he is always driven by his instinctive judgment of his short-term political needs. Events on Tuesday in some ways paralleled the time he met relatives of victims of the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018 and committed himself to serious gun violence reform, only for momentum for action to fade when the political focus moved on.

For all his command of his political base, and outlandish claims for his own political greatness, Trump has never been a courageous politician willing to take steps that might require him to lead his supporters to a different political place. And given the rocky state of his opinion poll ratings as he prepares to square up to Biden, he may feel he has little reason to take even his most fervent supporters for granted.

And Vice President Mike Pence offered new reason to doubt whether the White House is up to speed on the changes sweeping the country, after he waffled and failed to answer a question on Fox News on Tuesday about whether African Americans have a harder time making it in the country.

Democrats to act on counter proposal

Democrats on Wednesday are expected to vote out of committee their counter to the President during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, which will debate the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The measure is designed to hold police accountable by putting into law enforceable standards that Trump's executive order lacks.

Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, said on Tuesday that the bill would change "the criminal standard for prosecutions of police misconduct cases, banning chokeholds, ending racial and religious profiling, and eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement."

But while it is likely to have an easy road in the House -- 220 Democrats have signed on already -- the effort already looks set to be blocked by Republicans in the Senate who believe federal efforts to impose policing standards represent overreach and an infringement of state and local powers.

"It's basically typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington. We have no interest in that," McConnell said on Tuesday of the House legislation.

Scott, who was at Trump's executive order signing said Tuesday that his legislation does not ban chokeholds but gets "very, very close to that place." But his comments signal a major clash with Democrats who are looking to impose change on police departments rather than provide incentives for reform. And Democrats, who appear to believe they have the political momentum on the issue have the power to stop Scott's bill advancing if they deem it insufficiently stringent since it will require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the 100-vote chamber.

This story has been updated to include additional developments Wednesday.

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