COLUMBIA, S.C. — President Trump, speaking to a handpicked audience of supporters at a historically black college here on Friday, belittled the Obama administration’s record on racial equity and claimed that his own administration had helped African-Americans beyond anything “in the history of our country.”
Opening a three-day forum on criminal justice that will later feature his Democratic rivals, Mr. Trump promoted the bipartisan criminal justice overhaul he signed last year and invited to the stage several people who were released from prison as a result of the new law or his own commutation decisions.
Last year’s overhaul, the First Step Act, was an example of the power of bipartisanship, he said, praising the Republicans and Democrats who worked on it for their efforts “to restore hope and optimism where they’re really needed the most and where there was very little.”
“We had ’em so liberal you wouldn’t believe it and so conservative you wouldn’t believe it,” Mr. Trump said of the coalition.
But as his hourlong speech went on, his message of harmony gave way to his trademark partisan attacks on Democrats.
The president said he wanted to talk about Abraham Lincoln — “Lincoln was a Republican, people forget that, we need to start bringing that up” — because “the Democratic policies have let African-Americans down and taken them for granted.”
He recalled the 2016 speech in which he urged black voters to support him because “what the hell do you have to lose,” repeating the line multiple times and saying his administration had kept its promise to those voters.
And he described how his administration had helped historically black colleges and universities and suggested that voters “check out the last administration and see what they did for you.”
“Not too much,” he said.
Mr. Trump and his allies had billed the speech, at Benedict College in Columbia, as a chance for the president to step outside the friendly confines of his supporter base and pitch his administration’s record on criminal justice reform and black employment directly to a black audience.
But fewer than 10 students from Benedict were given tickets to the invitation-only event, which had room for about 300 attendees, according to a college spokeswoman. More than half of the seats were reserved for guests and allies of the administration, including many black supporters of Mr. Trump who came from out of state.
“I’m happy he was here,” said Byron Donalds, a black Republican lawmaker in the Florida Legislature who came here for the speech. “People say a lot of things, but I’m about what actually gets done. Some people take issue with him, but I’ve always said, don’t talk about it — be about it. And I’m about what he’s getting done.”
The friendliness of the audience was clear from the moment Mr. Trump took the stage, when someone shouted, “We love you, Mr. President, we love you!” More than once, the audience broke into chants of “four more years,” to which Mr. Trump responded at one point: “Just don’t say 16 more years. You’ll drive them crazy.”
Mr. Trump’s speech opened a three-day event at the college, billed as the “Second Step Presidential Justice Forum.” Leading Democratic presidential candidates will attend the forum on Saturday and Sunday to discuss their criminal justice plans, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The forum’s name is a reference to the First Step Act, which has helped thousands of federal inmates secure early release under new sentencing guidelines.
Another Democratic candidate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, said Friday she was pulling out of her scheduled appearance at the forum because its organizers had honored Mr. Trump with their annual Bipartisan Justice Award. She said Mr. Trump had spent decades “celebrating mass incarceration.”
Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor, said she would hold her own discussion of criminal justice elsewhere in Columbia on Saturday.
Overhauling the criminal justice system has, in recent years, been one of the rare areas of bipartisan agreement in an increasingly polarized Congress, and that consensus has spilled into the presidential race. Democrats making the progressive argument for reform have cited the system’s disproportionate impact on black, Latino and Native American communities.
Conservatives have often focused on the financial burden mass incarceration places on governments. But Mr. Trump does not use that framing.
“The more people I spoke with, the more clear it became that the system could be deeply unfair, contributing to a cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration,” Mr. Trump said in the speech. But he included another shot at Democrats, saying that the First Step Act “rolled back the unjust provisions of the 1994 Clinton crime law, which disproportionately harmed the African-American community.”
In the Democratic primary, black voters play a critical role in selecting the party’s nominee, especially in South Carolina, an early-voting state where they make up more than half the party’s electorate. But even the slightest downturn in black turnout in a general election can be fatal for a Democratic candidate, and Mr. Trump and his allies have expressed some hope that they can peel off enough support from black voters — or keep them home altogether — to make an impact in battleground states in 2020.
In 2016, a decrease in black turnout in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia helped Mr. Trump win key swing states by razor-thin margins, propelling him to an Electoral College victory.
In Mr. Trump’s time in office, his administration has sought to support historically black colleges and universities, increasing federal funding by 14.3 percent. And Mr. Trump spoke to black educators last month at the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week conference.
But Mr. Trump has also made attacks on lawmakers of color part of his re-election strategy. This summer, for example, he lashed out at Representative Elijah E. Cummings on Twitter, referring to Mr. Cummings’s majority-black district in Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
Polling suggests Mr. Trump has made few inroads with black voters. His approval rating among black registered voters nationwide was just 10 percent in a survey published this week by Quinnipiac University, compared with 43 percent among white voters and 37 percent over all.
The highly choreographed nature of Friday’s event speaks to the administration’s difficulties in appealing to black voters. Some critics say that Mr. Trump’s made-for-television outreach is proof that he is less interested in winning over black voters than in absolving a white voter base often accused of supporting racist rhetoric.
About an hour before Mr. Trump’s appearance, more than 100 anti-Trump protesters gathered near the Benedict campus. The protest included few students; it mostly comprised local residents and staff members of the state Democratic Party and some of the Democratic presidential campaigns.
Tim Bupp, a 62-year-old South Carolina pastor, held a sign that showed a lynched black person hanging from a tree. It was a reference to Mr. Trump’s tweet this week likening the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry to a lynching.
“The fact that he compares the inquiry to a lynching and then has the audacity to come to a black college? Insane,” said Pastor Bupp, who is white. “He doesn’t even apologize. He just doubles down.”
Michelle Thomas, 42, who is black and lives in Columbia, said Mr. Trump’s lynching remark motivated her to protest. “That was the final straw for me,” she said.
Omarr Peters, 22, was one of Mr. Trump’s black supporters who attended the speech, traveling from Mississippi. He chose not to defend the president’s remarks invoking lynching.
“I do think, in general, sometimes Trump needs to watch what he says,” Mr. Peters said. “But that’s also the best thing about him. He’s not politically correct. He says it like it is and you get that realness from him.”
Leaders of historically black colleges and universities have long enjoyed close relationships with both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, even as their institutions face increasingly dire financial straits. Born of a time of segregation when African-Americans were forced to educate themselves, the schools have produced black leaders for more than a century, including politicians like Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mr. Cummings, who both attended Howard University.
In 2017, when several presidents of black colleges met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, many faced backlash from their student bodies. Campus leaders defended themselves by pointing to their pocketbooks, and the need to secure federal funds to remain viable.
Students were less impressed.
At Howard, founded 150 years ago in Washington, campus buildings were tagged with graffiti that denounced the school’s president and said “Make Howard black again.” Another inscription read “Make America black again.”
Astead W. Herndon reported from Columbia, and Maggie Astor from New York.
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