The Subject at the White House Was Criminal Justice.The Subtext Was the Election.

Mr. Trump has defended himself against charges of racism, telling reporters that he is “the least racist person you will ever interview.” The president, friends said, is bothered by the allegation. And he was frustrated, they said, when Mr. Kushner did not defend him more fiercely in a recent television interview in which he was asked if “birtherism,” the conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump stoked over whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States, was racist.

“I wasn’t really involved in that,” Mr. Kushner told Axios. “That was a long time ago.”

Democratic strategists said they did not expect the Trump administration’s work on criminal justice to move black voters to his corner in 2020. But some said that the president’s perceived compassion on the issue could help him on the margins with moderate and swing white voters, who want to assure themselves that the person they are voting for is not, in fact, guilty of the charges of racism.

Asked what constituency might be moved by Mr. Trump’s focus on criminal justice, Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said it was limited to “the Kardashians. I’m not actually sure beyond that.”

One piece of modest legislation was unlikely to paper over the president’s past record, he said.

“It’s hard to be the second-chance guy when you are separating families, deporting people who have been here without committing a crime, and routinely undermining legal efforts to address police misconduct,” Mr. Garin said.

But some Democratic lawmakers said that even if Mr. Trump’s continuing attention to the legislation was merely a political ruse to improve his chances against Mr. Biden, or another Democratic nominee, it was not a reason to oppose his efforts.

“I don’t subscribe to the viewpoint that, because of political prognosticating, we shouldn’t work together on good policy,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey. “We should always put country over party, and this is a case in point.”

And advocates who have been working closely with the White House insisted 2020 politics was not driving the issue.

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