COLUMBIA, SC – When President Donald Trump talks about how his policies are helping African Americans, he almost always mentions a new law that has allowed thousands of non-violent offenders to gain early release from federal prison.
He made the pitch again Friday at a criminal justice conference in South Carolina. And then he sought common ground with African Americans by saying he has had his own brush with a justice system that many say treats blacks and other people of color unfairly.
"I have my own experience. You know that," Trump said at the gathering, held at historically black Benedict College.
"You see what's going on with the witch hunt. It's a terrible thing that's going on in our country," he said. "No crimes. It's an investigation in search of a crime. It's been going on for longer than I'm in office."
It was unclear whether Trump was referring to the now-concluded special counsel investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. presidential election that put him in the White House or the ongoing House impeachment inquiry — or both. He has used the "witch hunt" phrase to describe both matters.
Earlier this week, Trump complained about the impeachment inquiry and compared it to a lynching, infuriating many blacks and Democrats.
Trump says he did nothing wrong during the presidential campaign or in his dealings with Ukraine.
"In America, you're innocent until proven guilty and we don't have investigations in search of that crime," he said at Friday's event sponsored by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. "Justice, fairness and due process are core tenets of our democracy. These are timeless principles I will faithfully uphold as president."
During the hour-long address, Trump called several people who had been released from prison under the First Step Act to the stage to offer testimonials.
Tanesha Bannister, a South Carolina native who was freed in May, told the president she would be serving five more years in prison if not for his work.
"I want to thank the president for giving me another lease on life," she said.
Trump called the law, which he signed in December, the "most significant criminal justice reform in many generations."
The measure was supported by an unlikely mix of conservative and liberal groups that argued that harsh sentences for drug crimes had filled the nation's prisons with non-violent offenders who could benefit from support and training on the outside if released.
Many of Trump's Democratic presidential rivals are scheduled to speak at the forum, which is continuing through the weekend, giving the candidates another opportunity to connect with black voters in a state that is among the first to hold its presidential primaries.
But Kamala Harris' campaign said Friday the California senator would skip the forum. She objected to the group's decision to give Trump its Bipartisan Justice Award, and decried that only a handful of Benedict students were admitted.
The audience included mostly Trump supporters, which drew criticism from other Democrats, too.
"Let's not sugarcoat it. The fact is, he is coming to this college today to create an appearance that people of color support his campaign," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.
Trump told the audience that Democratic policies have let down African Americans and taken them for granted. He said part of his agenda is to lift up forgotten Americans.
"My goal has been to give a voice to the voiceless," Trump said.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.