Before presenting the award, Donalds praised Trump for his leadership in helping reform the nation's broken criminal justice system, citing the president as an influence in his decision to file a similar bill in Florida's House earlier this year.
"The President's leadership gave me the courage to file Florida's version of the First Step Act earlier this year. And although we fell short in Florida, the ground has been laid for real reforms in our state," Donalds said on Friday. "What is now possible in Florida is only possible due to the vision, the courage, and the leadership of President Trump."
Donalds has been a champion for reforming Florida’s prison system for years – first proposing a measure to raise the felony theft threshold in Florida in 2017, then filing the Florida First Step Act this past Legislative Session. While both justice reform bills failed to pass in the Florida House, which has historically been reluctant to pass sweeping prison changes, the Naples Republican remains optimistic about overhauling the state's incarceration rates and giving ex-offenders a second chance at life.
Donalds was joined alongside Matthew Charles, who was given a second chance when he became the first person released under the First Step Act. which passed through Congress and was signed into law by President Trump last year.
Charles was convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1996. He served 21 years of a 35-year prison sentence before being released from prison in 2016. But in May 2018, Charles was sent back to prison when it was ruled that the court made an error in his release.
"I stand before you today a military veteran, a convicted drug dealer, a born again Christian, and a free man," Charles said to a chorus of applause. "I would not be a free man today if President Donald J. Trump had not supported and signed the First Step Act."
Trump was awarded the accolade for his leadership in helping pass the bipartisan bill that transformed America’s incarceration system by reducing the sentences for low-level offenses.
“President Trump’s leadership on the issue of criminal justice reform has been tremendous,” said Donalds. “From the beginning of his administration, he has clearly seen how important it is for us to take a good, hard look at the ways our justice system is failing both victims and offenders and make bold changes to balance the scales of justice. His presence at the forum today and the words he shared clearly communicate what a priority this is for him, and it was an honor to present him with this well-deserved award.”
The president addressed the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., where a number of Democratic hopefuls will also appear this weekend. His speech focused on his administration's passage in 2018 of the First Step Act.
“The First Step Act proved we could achieve amazing breakthroughs when we come together as a nation and put the interests of our citizens before the interests of any political party,” Trump said in his speech on Friday.
Trump also praised the conservative representative from Florida, touting his youth and future in the political arena.
"I want to thank Representative Donalds – there's somebody with a future," Trump said. "He's got a tremendous future ahead of him."
The acclaim from Trump comes days after Florida insiders speculated that Donalds could potentially run for Congressional District 19 after U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney announced his retirement during a Fox News interview earlier this week.
“I’m humbled by all of the people in Southwest Florida who have encouraged me to run again for Congress,” he said. “I am strongly considering getting into the race.”
The GOP seat covering Lee and Collier counties is expected to draw top conservative candidates, with Donalds being an early frontrunner if he decides to run.
You can view Rep. Donalds' remarks and President Trump's address in the timestamped video above.