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DeSantis eyes repeal of Trump’s only bipartisan accomplishment

By vowing to undo the First Step Act, Ron DeSantis isn't just slamming Donald Trump, he's also hitting his ostensible Republican allies in Congress.


It stands to reason that each of the Republican presidential candidates are going to focus heavily on crime, but as The New York Times reported a few days ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has talked about the issue in an especially provocative way.

In an appearance with the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, Mr. DeSantis accused Mr. Trump, the G.O.P. front-runner, of “moving left” on criminal justice and immigration issues after winning over the party’s base in 2015 and 2016. He pledged that he would repeal what is known as the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice measure signed into law by Mr. Trump in 2018.

“He enacted a bill, basically a jailbreak bill,” DeSantis said, referring to the former president he used to adore. “It has allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people.”

If you don’t recall the First Step Act, you’re not alone. The former president and his team tried to turn it into a big deal, even going so far as to run an ad touting the measure during a Super Bowl, but for much of the public, it remains an obscure accomplishment.

That’s understandable. As my MSNBC colleague Jordan Rubin explained yesterday, the law “was a first step toward making small criminal justice improvements, like curbing some drug sentences, aiming to reduce recidivism, and expanding compassionate release. It was hardly revolutionary.”

Or put another way, to describe the law as “basically a jailbreak bill” is obviously foolish.

I’m mindful of the electoral circumstances, of course. Trump signed a bill into law; DeSantis is Trump’s principal intra-party rival; so it stands to reason that DeSantis is going to tell voters that he’ll enact better policies than his opponent. It also makes sense that the governor, eager to impress the GOP’s rabid base, is going to stake out positions well to the former president’s right, especially on high-profile issues such as crime.

But DeSantis’ position isn’t just misguided because he’s mischaracterizing a modest, narrow reform measure.

For one thing, amidst years of national debate about criminal justice reforms, the far-right Floridian wants voters to know he’s so dogmatic on the issue that he’s prepared to undo the one bipartisan accomplishment signed by Trump — who wasn’t exactly known as a far-left voice when it comes to overhauling an overly punitive system.

But as a political matter, it’s also worth emphasizing that DeSantis isn’t just slamming Trump when he vows to repeal the First Step Act, he’s also picking a fight with many of his own ostensible allies — including the GOP leadership in both chambers.

When the House advanced the legislation in December 2018, the tally wasn’t close: It passed 315 to 48. It enjoyed the support of House Republican leaders, including future House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who celebrated its passage.

In fact, when the House passed a similar version of the final bill earlier in the year, a conservative Florida congressman was among its supporters. I believe his name was Ron DeSantis.

In the Senate, meanwhile, support was similarly lopsided: It passed 87 to 12, again with the support of GOP leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To hear DeSantis tell it, they’re all responsible for allowing “dangerous people out of prison.”

Maybe the governor doesn’t care — he can pitch himself as an outsider at odds with the party “establishment” — but given the current state of his candidacy, DeSantis could probably use some support from the Republicans he’s alienating.