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Why Trump’s criminal justice reform plan could represent a ‘breakthrough’

President Trump has announced a criminal justice reform plan that would enact major changes to the nation’s sentencing laws -- and reduce prison terms for some inmates. NPR's Carrie Johnson joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why the new bipartisan agreement is a ‘big deal’ and what its chances are for garnering Senate support. Plus, analysis of Matt Whitaker's status as acting attorney general.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's take a closer look at what's in this plan and its prospects for becoming law with Carrie Johnson of NPR.

    Hello, Carrie.

    So we have just heard Mark Holden's explanation. Anything you would add from your perspective of somebody who's been watching this for a long time?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Yes, I think I have been covering these issues for six years.

    And today really felt like a breakthrough. The notion that President Trump, who campaigned on law and order, has actually thrown his weight behind a plan that would reduce some prison sentences for convicted drug criminals is a big deal. As one advocate told me, it's a Nixon goes to China moment.

    We will see if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate actually makes the time to get this done this year. We know that Paul Ryan, who's leaving the House at the end of this Congress, has made it a priority. So all eyes are on the Senate at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one thing that has changed is the departure of attorney — former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We know he was very opposed to this.

    Is his absence now going to make a difference?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    I think it is meaningful, Judy. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is not opposed to this plan at all, this First Step Act. And he's conveyed that to the White House.

    Jeff Sessions really dug his feet in and seemed to oppose any changes to sentencing laws, which this plan does now cover in his — in — after his force resignation last week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you have a sense of the timing, Carrie, whether this is something that is going to need to go — they need to push it during the lame-duck? Can they let it slide into 20 — 2019?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Advocates I'm talking to, both Democrats and Republicans, say they think this needs to get done now. There is going to be so much going on next year, with the House driven by Democrats, who want to do a lot of investigating and a lot of focus on health care and other issues.

    They believe the time for this to happen is now, before the end of the year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Carrie, I want you to stay with us because we want to talk about another issue that is front and center at the Justice Department.

    And that has to do with a man you just mentioned, the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. He was named after Jeff Sessions was fired.

    The public first heard from Mr. Whitaker today for the first time, as we said, since he took on this role. He spoke to a group of state and local law enforcement officers in Des Moines, Iowa.

  •  Matthew Whitaker:

    One thing hasn't changed in all of this change at the Department of Justice. You may have heard there's been a change or two at the Department of Justice.

    One thing that has not changed is our unwavering support for local law enforcement. The Trump administration will always be a law and order administration. We recognize public safety as the government's first and most important priority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Carrie, again, this is the first time we have heard from Mr. Whitaker since he was named by President Trump to be acting.

    Today, there was a little legal opinion issued at the Justice Department essentially saying that his appointment by the president was legal, it was constitutional, because questions had been raised. Can you fill us in on that?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Yes, legal experts, including Democrats and Republicans, who have worked in the Justice Department in the past had raised questions about the constitutionality of Matthew Whitaker becoming the acting attorney general, basically leapfrogging above Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who has been Senate-confirmed.

    Today, the Trump Justice Department issued a 20-page legal opinion concluding that Matt Whitaker is legitimate, that his appointment as acting A.G. is lawful.

    This matters, Judy, because the state of Maryland has challenged his appointment as part of an Obamacare-related lawsuit it has brought. And we expect other court challenges. The Trump DOJ basically says that historical precedent and laws lean toward Whitaker being the acting attorney general, he's been at DOJ for over a year in a senior enough role that it's totally appropriate for him to be serving as acting A.G.

    But what the Justice Department didn't do today was opine about any ethics or impartiality issues Matt Whitaker had — may have, issues that a lot of Democrats in Congress have already been raising.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, absolutely. I mean, we still are hearing Democrats question that legal opinion that came out of Justice. A number of them put out statements today, including Nancy Pelosi, who of course is vying to be elected speaker in the new House of Representatives, leader of the Democrats.

    But other Democrats have come out with statement saying they questioned the legality of his appointment. But you're right, Carrie. The bigger question many have raised is whether he — Mr. Whitaker's in a position to in any way interfere with the special counsel — with Robert Mueller's investigation.

    What's the understanding of that right now at Justice?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    The Justice Department says that Whitaker will consult with ethics officials inside the Justice Department.

    These are career folks who stay whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican. But he has not committed to telling all of us what their advice might be. And he has not committed to following their advice, whatever it is.

    That's why Democrats like Jerry Nadler, who may be the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee next year, say his first order of business is going to be calling Matthew Whitaker to testify under oath.

    There are real concerns about whether he can be impartial in the Mueller probe, because, as an op-ed contributor to CNN and on social media before he joined the Justice Department, he seemed to endorse President Trump's idea that this Russia probe was a witch-hunt, and that the president was OK to fire FBI Director Jim Comey, and that there was really no point in doing this deep-dive investigation, which the special counsel team has been doing for over a year-and-a-half now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what has Mr. Whitaker said on this?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Whitaker has basically said that he believes that he will — he has basically said that he has not refused or declined to recuse himself.

    So it's unclear where he stands right now. There are people inside the Justice Department who say he wouldn't have been appointed acting attorney general had he already agreed to recuse himself from this matter. That would have angered President Trump, and he never would have gotten this job in the first place.

    So there are big open questions about that right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Certainly are big open questions.

    Carrie Johnson following it all at the Justice Department, thank you very much.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Thank you.

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