Shortly before Trump took office in 2017, his administration asked to visit the newly opened museum, according to Bunch’s upcoming memoir, “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama and Trump.” Bunch was the museum’s founding director from 2005 until June, when he became the Smithsonian’s secretary.
The incoming president wanted to come on the holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., according to the memoir. The administration also asked that the museum be closed to the public during the visit. “The notion that we could shut out visitors on the first King holiday since the opening of the museum was not something I could accept,” Bunch writes. Another day was chosen.
Among those who joined Trump were Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who is featured in the museum and who had been nominated to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and King’s niece Alveda King. Bunch recalls hoping the visit “would contribute to a broader understanding of race relations in America. I am ever the optimist.”
Before the president-elect arrived, his aides told Bunch that Trump “was in a foul mood and that he did not want to see anything ‘difficult,’ ” Bunch writes. Nevertheless, Bunch started the tour in the history galleries, which begin with the global slave trade.
“It was not my job to make the rough edges of history smooth, even for the president,” he writes.
Trump greeted him warmly and expressed his wife’s enjoyment of a tour she had with Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Israeli prime minister, according to Bunch. Then they went into the galleries.
“The president paused in front of the exhibit that discussed the role of the Dutch in the slave trade,” Bunch writes. “As he pondered the label I felt that maybe he was paying attention to the work of the museum. He quickly proved me wrong. As he turned from the display he said to me, ‘You know, they love me in the Netherlands.’ All I could say was let’s continue walking.”
“There is little I remember about the rest of the hour we spent together. I was so disappointed in his response to one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history,” he continues. “Here was a chance to broaden the views and the understanding of the incoming president and I had been less successful than I had expected.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who attended the tour, said the administration wanted to visit the museum before it opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to avoid disrupting public access on a day they knew would have special meaning.
He remembers the president was engaged and asked questions throughout the tour, especially at the section on Carson’s medical career. It was also the first time Carson had seen it, Spicer said.
Bunch also recalls Trump being enthusiastic about the exhibition of Carson’s career, as well as a display of Muhammad Ali. “The president and I shared our stories about Ali and what he meant to America,” Bunch writes.
Later that day, Bunch writes, Trump took to social media, describing the museum and Bunch as “amazing.” “I will take what victories I can get,” he writes.
Asked about the passage — which was written last year — Bunch said he was pleased that Trump had visited.
“There is no doubt in my mind there were things he learned, engaged with,” he said in an interview last week. “What I hope is that the Smithsonian can play that role in a time of partisanship and division. I’m not saying who caused it, but the reality is, it’s a different time. And so I just want us to play that role.”
“Many visitors have told me that since the election in 2016, the museum has gained even greater significance,” he continues. “To some, visiting the museum allows them to find the solace, inspiration and hope that the current poisonous political partisanship and racial antipathy will one day be overcome.”