Hours before the event is about to begin, the shroud of mystery surrounding who will get to attend President Donald Trump’s speech Friday afternoon on the criminal justice system — taking place at a historically black college in South Carolina — is beginning to lift.
Meanwhile, in the buildup to his arrival, tensions surrounding the president’s visit to Benedict College in Columbia were becoming more pronounced.
According to the White House, there are approximately 300 tickets total to the invitation-only event, dubbed the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum by the White House. Half of these tickets have been reserved for guests of the administration, while the other half are being distributed locally.
Invited attendees include S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce President Stephen Gilchrist and South Carolina’s Glenn McCall, a Republican national committeeman. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham also said he expected to attend while U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s plans was less clear.
And at least 10 Benedict students will get to hear Trump’s remarks in person, Benedict spokeswoman Kymm Hunter told The State.
On Thursday, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin — a co-host of the forum — also told McClatchy DC that 10 Benedict College students would get admission but added that 200 Trump allies would be filling auditorium seats.
The S.C. GOP received 25 tickets to distribute to local elected officials. Otherwise, information on how to get into the event has been scarce.
The event’s main organizers from 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center could not be reached by for comment by McClatchy DC and The State over the course of the past week, as rumors swirled around event logistics.
On Thursday, Benjamin also confirmed news reported by the Post and Courier on Wednesday that he had attempted to move Trump’s speech off the Benedict campus, adding he had secured use of a larger venue at the South Carolina State Museum on the other side of downtown Columbia on Gervais Street.
He explained it was both to accommodate more people who wanted to attend and to separate the event from the 10 Democratic presidential candidates forum to take place at Benedict on Saturday and Sunday.
Trump was originally invited to participate in the same format as the other 2020 candidates to discuss criminal justice reform issues at a three-day conference at Benedict.
When Trump’s participation was changed at some point from a campaign stop to an official White House event — billed as a “keynote speech” with no audience interaction or exchange — Benjamin wondered whether the president should speak elsewhere.
“I received word from a number of folks who also wanted to attend,” Benjamin told McClatchy DC. “I knew that this space is restricted to 275 people ... and I also know pretty strongly that this was a departure from the original plans for the 2020 forum, that this was a White House event and that this should probably be a different venue.”
Benjamin continued: “I sought to have it moved to the State Museum, but my understanding after discussion with the White House is that the advance work necessary was not enough time to change the location.”
The limited ticketing of Friday’s event means a lot of people — Republican, Democrat or students alike — won’t have a chance to see Trump, who has drawn massive crowds before and after winning office, in person.
He also might not have a chance to reach the African American voters whose minds he needs to change, who might benefit from hearing Trump, in person, tout his signature legislative accomplishment: signing the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill which, in part, seeks to end mass incarceration of low-level offenders to stop the pattern of recidivism.
The venue size where Trump is speaking on Friday is different from what his predecessor experienced when he visited the campus in 2015, the last time a seated president visited the HBCU.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama chose the campus as a stop during his first trip back to South Carolina after winning the state’s 2008 primary.
Obama packed Benedict College’s Mays Arena, which can hold 3,500 people for basketball games. There he touted My Brother’s Keeper and marked the 50th anniversary of the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He also took questions from students.
Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.