WASHINGTON ― Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday accused Democrats of being insufficiently supportive of law enforcement, citing in part their backing of a prison reform bill President Donald Trump championed and signed into law in 2018.
Congress approved the measure, known as the First Step Act, by huge bipartisan margins. The vote was 87-12 in the Senate, with most of Cotton’s Republican colleagues on board. But Cotton and a few other conservatives insisted the law threatened public safety.
On Wednesday, amid a fight over a group of U.S. attorney nominees, Cotton called the law the “worst mistake of the Trump administration.” He attacked Democrats for voting “lock-step” in favor of its passage.
Democrats quickly pointed out that Trump and other Republican senators enthusiastically backed the law, pitching it as a major criminal justice reform initiative in their appeals to win over Black voters.
“The Republicans were in the majority ... Donald Trump signed it into law!” a bewildered-sounding Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) noted on the floor.
The law reduced prison sentences for some federal inmates whom federal prison officials deemed unlikely to commit future crimes. It also allowed inmates currently serving time for crack cocaine offenses to petition courts for an earlier release, correcting for the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine.
The floor fight boiled over after Cotton placed a hold on eight of President Joe Biden’s U.S. attorney nominees, who would serve as top law enforcement officials around the country.
The Senate typically confirms U.S. attorney nominees via voice vote. It last required cloture on a U.S. attorney nominee in 1993 and last held a roll call vote on such a nominee in 1975.
But Cotton has sought to maximize his leverage in the Democratic-controlled Senate by objecting to quick confirmation of U.S. attorney nominees. Without agreement from all 100 senators, Democrats would need to hold a recorded vote on each nominee, burning precious floor time in the process.
“I will not agree to fast-track political nominees to the department when the department is hanging out to dry career law enforcement officers,” Cotton said on the Senate floor.
Cotton’s gripe was that the Justice Department had not stepped in to help defend federal law enforcement officers from lawsuits from protesters who claim they were wrongfully injured by the officers during a 2020 siege of the federal court building in Portland, Oregon.
The Justice Department previously told Cotton it was helping more than 70 officers and that it had refused one request for representation. The department didn’t explain why but said that when it considers requests for legal help from a federal officer, it looks at whether the “conduct at issue fell within the scope of employment” and whether there had been wrongdoing.
“Thus, there are occasionally instances where, based on a review of the facts, it is not in the interest of the United States to provide representation,” the Justice Department told Cotton in a letter earlier this month, adding that it couldn’t get into details due to confidentiality and attorney-client privilege rules.
Cotton complained Wednesday that the officer denied representation, as well as three other officers who had not yet been granted representation, had not been told why they’d been left hanging ― and why they’d also been put back on unrestricted active duty.
“It would be pretty strange to send them back to the special operations group with no restrictions if they engaged in some kind of misconduct in Portland,” Cotton said.
But when Durbin asked if Cotton had received a privacy waiver from any of the four, meaning he’d been given permission to receive information about their cases, Cotton said he had not, so he apparently doesn’t have any official information about what happened.
In December, Cotton briefly threatened to block quick confirmation for U.S. attorney nominees from states only represented by Democrats. He relented after exacting an apology from Durbin on an unrelated issue.
“There were a lot of things I disagreed with [in] the Trump Justice Department ... but never once did I think about holding up the U.S. attorney of Arkansas or of Arizona or of Illinois because I disagreed with Donald Trump,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a former prosecutor, said Wednesday in a speech on the Senate floor.
Cotton has embraced “tough on crime” politics more aggressively than any other Republican in Congress. Even after the Trump administration had released thousands of federal prisoners under the First Step Act and no crime wave resulted, Cotton vowed that the crimes would come.
“When the law is fully implemented, yes, I believe that people who are released early from prison will go on to commit crimes,” Cotton told HuffPost in 2019. “It is almost a mathematical certainty.”
Holding up the installment of U.S. attorneys across the country may undermine Cotton’s “tough on crime” stance, however. As federal prosecutors, their job is literally to go after criminals.