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Bipartisan group removed from justice forum after protest from Harris and college students

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris announced Saturday that she would attend the “Second Step Presidential Justice Forum” at Benedict College in South Carolina — reversing a Friday decision to skip the cattle call, which set off President Donald Trump’s ire when she said that it was because he received an award for criminal justice reform.

In a statement sent out by Harris’ campaign, Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin affirmed that sponsor 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center would no longer participate in the forum after media reports surfaced that Benedict students were restricted and told to stay in their dorms.

Trump spoke Friday at the historically black Benedict College, where approximately 33 students attended the speech, both Benjamin and college officials said on Saturday, revising the numbers they provided to CNN on Friday.

“I am excited to welcome presidential candidates to a criminal justice forum dialogue which will allow Benedict College students and the wider community to have full participation,” Benjamin said in a statement Saturday. “I want to be clear that the Candidate Forums are hosted by myself and Benedict College. This portion of the weekend is not a 20/20 Presidential Justice Center event,” the statement added.

In the hours after Harris initially announced she wouldn’t be present at the forum, talks began between her campaign, Mayor Benjamin and Benedict College to create an end result that didn’t include the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center with a breakthrough happening overnight, a Harris campaign aide said.

“People were figuring out a solution where the group honoring President Trump wasn’t involved and students had access to speeches and the ability to ask questions,” the aide said.

Another aide said Harris, the only graduate of a historically black college in the 2020 field, wouldn’t stand for the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center “disrespecting” the legacy of HBCUs and their history rooted in protest, justice and equality.

“When it became clear Donald Trump would receive an award after decades of celebrating mass incarceration, pushing the death penalty for innocent Black Americans, rolling back police accountability measures and racist behavior that puts people’s lives at risk, and then learned all but ten Benedict students are excluded from participating, I cannot in good faith be complicit in papering over his record,” Harris said in a statement Friday.

In a Saturday morning tweet, Trump countered that his reforms will “greatly help the African American community” and touted unemployment numbers, saying that together they’re “more than Kamala will EVER be able to do for African Americans!”

“Badly failing presidential candidate @KamalaHarris will not go to a very wonderful largely African American event today because yesterday I received a major award, at the same event, for being able to produce & sign into law major Criminal Justice Reform legislation, which will……greatly help the African American community (and all other communities), and which was unable to get done in past administrations despite a tremendous desire for it,” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets. “This and best unemployment numbers EVER is more than Kamala will EVER be able to do for African Americans!”

Harris responded to the President’s tweet Saturday, pointing to her own history of work on criminal justice reform and accusing him of falsely claiming to have done so.

“My whole life I’ve fought for justice and for the people — something you’d know nothing about,” she retorted on Twitter. “The only part of criminal justice you can claim credit for is the ‘criminal’ part.”

Fellow Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a supporter of the First Step Act bill, said Saturday on the event stage that he tailored his speech to criticize the event’s treatment of the President.

“I want to be clear I had some prepared remarks yesterday that have changed because Donald Trump stood on this very stage and I feel like I need to address it,” he said.

“I feel like it was unacceptable to me that Donald Trump was given a venue which he filled principally with people he brought instead of students from this great university, members from the broader community, were not included,” Booker said. “The Bipartisan Justice Center allowed him to create an illusion that he had support from HBCUs or this community when in fact, just as he’s done to communities like this one throughout his entire professional career he does not have the support of communities like this that he actively demeans degrades and disempowers.”

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the differing numbers provided to CNN by both the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and Benedict College officials on Friday and Saturday.

CNN