In Encounters With Black Leaders, Trump Has Chosen Photograph Ops Over Substance


On Martin Luther King’s Birthday in January 2017, Donald J. Trump, then the president-elect, welcomed a bunch of civil rights leaders, led by Dr. King’s eldest son, into his workplace in Trump Tower.

After a tour of Mr. Trump’s celeb curio assortment (Shaquille O’Neal’s sneakers, dimension 22, have been a spotlight), the guests offered him with a proposal meant to forestall state voter identification legal guidelines from disenfranchising individuals of coloration.

The delegation had low expectations. Mr. Trump had championed the lie that President Barack Obama was not born in America and, of their view, performed to racial fears in the course of the 2016 marketing campaign. He rapidly dashed even these modest hopes. Low turnout amongst Black voters, Mr. Trump declared, had helped him defeat Hillary Clinton.

“Many individuals didn’t exit — many Blacks didn’t exit — to vote for Hillary as a result of they favored me. That was virtually pretty much as good as getting their vote,” Mr. Trump mentioned, reducing his voice to say the phrase “Blacks,” on a recording offered by a gathering participant and confirmed as genuine by three others. (A White Home spokesman didn’t dispute the veracity of the recording.)

Mr. Trump promised he would severely think about their proposal. It went nowhere.

“I might be higher to the African-American individuals than anyone else on this room,” he declared simply earlier than heading down the elevator to look earlier than the cameras along with his friends, in accordance with the recording, which was shared with a number of information organizations final month.

To Mr. Trump, this was little greater than a photograph op: Two former aides recalled that he wished to be seen with a bunch of Black leaders to rebut an assertion made by Consultant John Lewis, the late civil rights paragon, who on the time had mentioned he didn’t “see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”

Because the 2020 marketing campaign hits the homestretch, Mr. Trump has been claiming that he’s the best president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln and papering over his historical past of racist remarks by having Black supporters at the Republican convention again his boast that he “is the least racist person in the world.”

Actually, Mr. Trump has employed very few Black officials to positions of authority in the White House and for his re-election effort. And his marketing campaign has stoked racial divisions to an extent not seen since George Wallace’s run in 1968. He has tried to dam or hamper efforts to broaden poll entry. He has mentioned Black individuals have been “too silly” to vote for him, according to his estranged former attorney, Michael Cohen.

When requested about Mr. Cohen’s cost, a White Home spokesman emailed an announcement by Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany calling Mr. Cohen, “a disgraced felon and disbarred lawyer, who lied to Congress.”

And because the 2017 assembly illustrates, lots of Mr. Trump’s interactions with Black leaders have adopted an analogous sample: He has turned alternatives for reconciliation, and even to debate coverage variations, into empty-calorie encounters in entrance of the cameras, in accordance with interviews with greater than 30 Black officers, civil rights leaders, and former and present administration officers.

Trump marketing campaign officers informed reporters final week that they have been working laborious to barely exceed their efficiency with Black voters in 2016 after they received about 8 p.c of their vote. The president has additionally tried to mollify white moderates who could be turned off by his racial rhetoric.

The result’s a jarring, split-screen strategy: The president talks up his friendships with Black Individuals (typically well-known ones like Kanye West) whereas operating a marketing campaign whose goal is to frighten white suburban voters into pondering a Biden presidency will deliver issues from inner-city America to their entrance lawns.

“The objective of the this stuff was simply to get him by way of the assembly, then get the image,” mentioned Anthony Scaramucci, the previous Trump aide, now an outspoken critic of the president, who arrange a number of conferences between Mr. Trump and Black sports activities figures, including the football legend Jim Brown.

At first, some Black leaders appeared open to the president’s entreaties. However they mentioned any likelihood of significant communication with Mr. Trump ended, with the finality of a slammed door, when he declared there have been “very fine people on both sides” after white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.

For Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s son, the essential second got here a couple of minutes into the January 2017 session, when Mr. Trump falsely claimed that “lots of of hundreds of individuals” had crossed the border to illegally solid ballots for Mrs. Clinton.

“My hope, as a result of I consider within the human spirit in most individuals, is that he would acknowledge there was an adjustment that needed to be made,” Mr. King mentioned in an interview. “However he has no real interest in doing something for anyone who doesn’t help him. The overwhelming majority of Black individuals don’t help him, so he has nothing for almost all of Black of us.”

Theodore Mukamal, a civil rights legal professional who recorded the assembly, mentioned he had gone in assuming that the president wished to maneuver past the rancor of the election.

“It was a catastrophe,” mentioned Mr. Mukamal. “There was no observe by way of, and it turned out the other of what we might have probably predicted.”

Throughout an interview with Mr. Trump for a brand new ebook, the journalist Bob Woodward requested the president if he felt a must “perceive the anger and ache” of Black Individuals.

“No,” Trump replied. “You actually drank the Kool-Assist, didn’t you? Simply hearken to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.

Ja’Ron Smith, a deputy assistant to the president, mentioned that Mr. Trump’s efforts have been geared at making certain “hardworking patriots of the Black group are forgotten not,” moderately than successful over the critics.

“For many years Democratic leaders have stood behind empty guarantees when it got here to Black Individuals,” wrote Mr. Smith in an e-mail. “The polices of stagnation and governmental dependence have been dismantled and changed with financial prosperity and alternative.”

Mr. Trump continued to succeed in out after he was elected. In March 2017, Omarosa Manigault Newman, the previous “Apprentice” star-turned-White Home adviser, invited members of the Congressional Black Caucus to the White Home to debate their coverage agenda.

Mr. Trump ushered them, cheerfully, into the Cupboard Room. They sat throughout the desk, grimly, with blue binders. Consultant James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, recalled that Mr. Trump interrupted 3 times to counsel they relocate to the Oval Workplace.

Lastly, as Mr. Clyburn started his pitch for a nationwide infrastructure and broadband plan, Vice President Mike Pence popped in to announce that they wanted to vacate the room to make method for an additional assembly, Mr. Clyburn mentioned.

“Let’s go!” Mr. Trump mentioned.

The group adopted him into the Oval Workplace, however congregated close to the hearth; Consultant Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who chaired the caucus, turned down Mr. Trump’s request for a photograph however he agreed to pictures displaying the caucus negotiating — removed from Mr. Trump’s favourite snapshot vacation spot, the Resolute Desk.

“I do know his sort,” Mr. Clyburn mentioned in an interview. “He has been as caustic as he might be. Trump insults in public after which makes a personal telephone name to you to say that’s actually not what he meant. I’ve been round these form of white individuals all my life.”

Mr. Trump continued to pursue high-profile conferences. On the similar time, his political appointees had begun to systematically scuttle enforcement of civil rights legal guidelines in training, housing, well being care and at the Justice Department.

The president appeared to position explicit emphasis on systematically erasing the legacy of the primary Black president; certainly one of his aides printed out a checklist of Mr. Obama’s accomplishments to assault them, one after the other.

Mr. Richmond declined an invitation for another meeting later in 2017, writing that doing so could be pointless, “given the actions taken by your administration since our first assembly.”

Mr. Trump’s supporters consider that the failure of the Democratic Occasion to satisfy its guarantees to Black Individuals has created a gap for the president’s unorthodox strategy.

Wayne Dupree, a conservative speak radio host in Baltimore, mentioned that “issues wouldn’t have been any completely different” if Mr. Trump had made a extra concerted effort at outreach.

Darrell Scott, a Cleveland-area pastor who co-founded the Trump marketing campaign’s range panel, mentioned the shortage of a “constructive relationship” isn’t Mr. Trump’s fault.

“Folks at all times ask me why there aren’t any Blacks within the White Home,” he mentioned. “That is the spoils system, if somebody comes on board within the marketing campaign, they go to the White Home. However the Blacks who got here onto the marketing campaign have been labeled ‘coons,’ ‘Uncle Toms’ and ‘sellouts,’ so Blacks weren’t making use of for positions.”

A very powerful again channel for communication has been Mr. Smith, who has performed a key function in three achievements most regularly touted by the president: a tax credit score program geared toward growing funding in low-income neighborhoods, elevated funding for traditionally Black faculties and universities and the bipartisan legal justice reform invoice.

Mr. Smith — who resisted efforts to play a bigger public role earlier than agreeing to talk on the conference final month — has additionally quietly reached out to some civil rights teams even because the president was hurling gasoline-on-the-fire tweets, in accordance with a White Home official with data of his actions. He’s additionally one of many few White Home officers pushing for a response to handle disparities in well being outcomes for individuals of coloration in the course of the pandemic, and tried, with restricted success, to dealer bipartisan police reform laws, one other official mentioned.

The president sought to challenge a extra empathetic picture within the rapid aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in June. Mr. Smith’s efforts however, Mr. Trump has not substantively addressed police violence. In June, he convened a bunch of Black conservatives and talk-radio hosts to the White Home for a discussion in front of the cameras. Mr. Trump started with a rosy evaluation of race relations and financial alternative.

Sonnie Johnson, a conservative radio host, challenged him. “The Black group isn’t OK — I perceive the angle and the will to place out this speaking level, nevertheless it’s not,” she mentioned.

When she was executed, Mr. Trump declared, “Good job.”

He didn’t deal with her particular issues.

The 2 Black individuals invited to a televised spherical desk with Mr. Trump in Kenosha, Wis., held within the wake of the police capturing of Jacob Blake, have been James E. Ward Jr. and Sharon Ward, husband-and-wife pastors from a church in Skokie, Sick., who’re near Mr. Blake’s household.

When a reporter asked them if police violence was a systemic issue, Mr. Trump, maybe pondering the query was for him, reduce them off to say, “I believe the police do an unimaginable job.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting.