Tim Scott, the Republican Party’s most powerful Black lawmaker, first saw the president’s tweet less than 10 minutes before going live on CNN. Before that late June appearance, Jake Tapper, the host of the Sunday show “State of the Union,” texted it to the senator from South Carolina ahead of asking for comment on air about President Trump’s decision to share a video of one of his supporters shouting “white power” from his seat in a golf cart during a drive-by argument with an anti-Trump protester. “Thank you to the great people of The Villages,” Trump had added, by way of commentary, referring to the Florida retirement community where the incident took place.
Without much time to think, Scott got in touch with his chief of staff, Jennifer DeCasper, to get her opinion.
“Nobody is going to be upset if you call it out,” DeCasper, a former prosecutor who is also Black, recalls telling him. “Nobody. Not a Republican, not a Democrat, not a Black person, not a White person. This is a very obvious time for a ‘take this down’ statement, and that’s all you have to say.”
Minutes later, Tapper played the clip for Scott on the air. The senator didn’t hesitate: “There’s no question,” Scott said. “He should not have retweeted it, and he should just take it down.”
In a town where Republicans seem to be rendered illiterate or are all suddenly late for lunch anytime the leader of their party says something racist or otherwise unhinged, calling out Trump is something of a novel approach. For four years now, Trump has been putting his allies in impossible situations: Speak up and get alienated, or stay silent and risk losing your moral standing. But Scott has been navigating this terrain with more agility than most.
While Scott was criticizing the tweet on CNN, Trump’s motorcade was pulling through a small crowd of protesters into Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., where he would play a round with his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Scott’s fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Lindsey Graham. (“Ivanka has a great swing,” Graham told me later in an interview. And Jared? “Uh … he can hit the ball a long way.”)
A short time later, on the links, Kushner and Ivanka brought news of Scott’s comments to Trump, according to Graham. The senior senator said he told the president that if “that’s what Tim thinks, that goes a long way with me.” The president decided to take it down without an argument. It had been up for about three hours. (The White House declined to comment.)
“When Tim talks,” Graham said, “people listen.”
Tim Scott has been talking a lot lately. In June, on the fifth anniversary of the church shooting that left nine Black worshipers dead in his hometown of Charleston, he took the occasion not only to remember those who had died, but to push for passage of the police reform bill he had spearheaded in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of an officer in Minneapolis.
Standing on the Senate floor, Scott, 54, cut a distinctive figure: youthful, bald, athletic (he was a high school running back), and one of three Black senators in the august legislative body — the only one on the Republican side. As he spoke about the Charleston shooting, Scott could barely hold back tears. His speech, framed as an attack on a Democratic colleague who had criticized Scott’s bill as inadequate to the task (and who used the loaded word “token” to describe it), highlighted the fact that police abuse is real, is experienced more often by Black citizens and often goes unacknowledged. “Had it not been caught on video, we might be in a different place,” Scott said of the clip showing Floyd being choked to death. He slapped his palm for emphasis and rattled off the names of unarmed Black men whose killings were recorded: Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Walter Scott (no relation to the senator).
In private, Scott has schooled his Republican colleagues on the everyday racism he and his family have encountered: the 18 times — by his count — he’s been pulled over by police in the past two decades; the bigoted voice mails left for his office; the story of his grandfather, whose life provides the senator with perspective on his own challenges.
But being the Republican race explainer is not a role Scott loves, especially when it means being questioned by the media whenever the president does something offensive, like refer to several predominantly Black nations as “shithole countries” or tell American-born or naturalized congresswomen of color to “go back” to their “broken and crime infested” homelands.
“Of all the issues that are going on, I know the racial ones are the most provocative,” Scott told me in June, during one in a series of interviews. “But I’m not the only person that people can talk to about it. I don’t want to be racially profiled into a position where I only get to talk about what the president does.”
He finds himself in a formidable position, and also a precarious one. Scott, who speaks with Trump regularly and has many good relationships within the administration, is influential enough to get the president to second-guess a tweet or to support a piece of legislation. But Scott’s role as counselor on racial matters is also shaped by everything he chooses not to criticize — and by his unwavering loyalty to the president. After all, on issues of race, Trump’s instincts and rhetoric remain unaffected, despite Scott’s counsel.
So what does it mean to be a Black senator and supporter of a president whose campaign is fueled, in part, by racial hostility? And what kind of political future can someone like Scott have in a party that Donald Trump has remade in his image?
In 2005, when Michael S. Steele was the lieutenant governor and the first African American elected statewide in Maryland, he got a call from a reporter asking him if he had a problem with the fact that his boss, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, belonged to an all-White golf club. Caught off-guard, Steele told the reporter he didn’t mind: “I don’t know that much about the club, the membership, nor do I care, quite frankly, because I don’t play golf. It’s not an issue with me,” he said.
One of his next calls, however, was to Ehrlich to figure out “what the hell was happening” and to make sure the boss knew he had to “resign from the club” immediately.
“It’s always a very challenging position to be close to the principal,” Steele told me. Steele, who later became the first African American to chair the Republican National Committee, says: “Trying to navigate, trying not to throw anyone under the bus. It was hard as a lieutenant governor, but it’s got to be even more challenging with Trump because something happens virtually every day. I don’t know how they do it.”
There is a lot to answer for. Donald Trump’s introduction to public life, in the 1970s, was as the scion of a real estate business sued by the Department of Justice over alleged racial discrimination. As a presidential candidate he spread unfounded “birther” conspiracy theories about the background of America’s first Black president, and as president he went out of his way to say there were “very fine people” among the tiki-torch-carrying white-supremacist rally goers in Charlottesville.
It’s an unenviable position to be the one senator asked constantly to account for the president’s language and policies regarding race because that one senator happens to be Black. “You guys just won’t stop asking the questions. So I answer the question, and I don’t have a long answer, which, for whatever reason makes you think you should ask it a different way.” Accordingly, Scott has developed a go-to response. “I can’t control the president of the United States,” Scott says. “I can only control what I do.”
And as a senator with legislative goals and with a president who can help him achieve them, that means figuring out a way to work with Trump. And so he chooses his words carefully, only ever going as far as saying the president acts in “racially insensitive” ways, but never calling him racist. (Steele himself doesn’t tread that line as carefully. “I don’t know,” he says. “Growing up, the people who were most racially insensitive tended to be racist.”)
Instead of spending all his time trying to parse what’s in the president’s heart, Scott would rather point out all the good that has come from the Trump presidency: the tax reform Scott helped craft, a program called Opportunity Zones that creates tax incentives to encourage investment in struggling communities, more funding for historically Black colleges, and a criminal justice bill signed into law.
J.C. Watts, a former college quarterback who became part of the House leadership team in the 1990s, can empathize with Scott’s situation. Watts arrived in Washington as a young congressman with a warning: “A prominent Black conservative told me that I was about to enter a peculiar situation,” he recalls. “He said, ‘You’re not going to get the support of the civil rights community, and you’re not going to get the support of the conservative community. No one will fully trust you.’ ”
Watts soon realized that his Black Republican-ness was all any reporters seemed to ask him about in interviews. As for his congressional colleagues, they didn’t seem interested in building a more-diverse coalition. “Republicans tend to say you have to be a Republican or be Black; you can’t be both,” he says. “But that’s impossible to do. It’s like separating the water from the wet.”
This mentality is a barrier to the GOP, Watts argues. As a whole, Black Democrats tend to be more religious and more moderate than Democrats of other races, according to recent polling from Pew Research Center, with 25 percent of those polled calling themselves “conservative.” And yet in the last presidential election 89 percent of Black voters supported Hillary Clinton over Trump and ranked lowering health-care costs among their top concerns. Figuring out how to change that, Watts says, is the “$64,000 question.”
In search of answers, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report back in 2012 on why the party was falling behind in federal elections. The “autopsy” found Republicans were viewed as “scary” and “narrow-minded,” and unless they worked to broaden their appeal beyond their White base, they risked losing future elections. This was something that Steele had been trying to tell the party for years. Not that members were particularly willing to listen.
As much as Scott stands out, he’s always had an impressive ability to disappear. Quarantine conditions are no problem for him. He would rather stay in to read and write late into the night than go out with friends or colleagues. A deeply religious man, he’s often found huddling in a corner somewhere during late-night votes in the Senate, deep into his Bible study.
Early in Scott’s tenure as a senator, before he became so well-known in his state, his ability to stay under the radar was to his advantage, and he would, on occasion, don jeans and a ball cap and spend the day “undercover,” sweeping floors at a burrito joint, say, or riding a city bus as a way to talk to his constituents without all the pressure that comes with meeting an elected official.
If Republicans were having trouble selling conservatism to a diverse electorate, Scott figured he could be just the salesman they needed. “I sold doughnuts door to door, I sold vacuums door to door, I sold Amway door to door,” Scott told me in 2014 on a reporting trip I took with him to anonymously stock shelves in a Goodwill in Columbia. “So for me, that’s what I do.”
That day, he chatted with ex-cons, the working poor and a diverse cross-section of voters, fitting in in a way that many of his colleagues could never dream of — conducting a secret listening tour for political purposes. He may be a self-described introvert, but he has a natural charm, the kind of guy who knows the Capitol Hill police officers’ names and what football teams they root for. Known for his colorful socks and the stage presence of a revivalist preacher, Scott for a time even debated going into the seminary.
But there’s another reason Scott could pull off his undercover shtick: The people and places he visited were not foreign to him. Scott grew up in North Charleston, the son of a single mother who worked 16-hour days as a nursing assistant to provide for her three boys. A terrible student (“When you fail both English and Spanish they don’t call you bilingual,” he likes to joke. “They call you bi-ignorant.”), Scott spent more time in high school hanging around a local Chick-fil-A than studying. He struck up an unlikely friendship with the franchise owner, John Moniz, a White conservative Christian who became Scott’s mentor and who encouraged him not only to give his all to school, but to football. Scott ended up with a partial scholarship to Presbyterian College — and a newfound conservative ideology.
He started selling insurance after college, eventually owning an insurance business, and when Scott decided he wanted to run for elective office, he did what most Black candidates do: He sat down with the Democrats. But when they told him it would take a long time to work his way up through the hierarchy, he didn’t feel like waiting and took his talents to the Republican side of the aisle. It helped that he’d long felt more conservative than his Democratic friends, and it helped that the Republicans seemed more interested in making him a star.
The Republican Party donated the maximum amount of $5,000 to his first campaign, for Charleston County Council, the first time the party had given so much for a county council candidate, and Scott romped his Democratic opponent with 80 percent of the vote. In 2010, after a stint in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Scott threw his hat in the ring for the U.S. House, defeating Strom Thurmond’s son in a primary that Republicans couldn’t help but feel was symbolic.
“It meant a lot to the Republican Party that we finally had elected an African American and not just talked about it,” says Katon Dawson, who as the South Carolina chairman of the party recruited Scott to run for Congress.
Scott wasn’t the only Black Republican to arrive at the U.S. Capitol the next year. Rep. Allen West joined him too, and the retired Army lieutenant colonel from Florida was more than quotable (and controversial) enough for the two of them. Where West seemed most comfortable comparing Democrats to Nazis, Scott kept his head down. He was so risk averse that when his chief of staff suggested they might want to work on criminal justice reform, Scott balked, worrying, like Watts had before him, that such a move would pigeonhole him as the race-minded politician.
“If you jump on the bandwagon of issues that you are obviously uniquely prepared to discuss and champion, then you can get lost on the other overall issues,” Scott says. “That’s something I resisted because I didn’t want to be the ‘Black Republican.’ ”
A rare freshman who had the support of both the tea party members who dominated his class and the GOP leadership that the tea party bucked against, Scott earned a reputation as a serious legislator and an effective communicator. When Sen. Jim DeMint, the senior senator from South Carolina, stepped down in 2013, then-Gov. Nikki Haley tapped Scott to fill the seat.
His appointment, once again, made history. Not everyone was celebrating, though. He was the first Black senator to serve from a Southern state since Reconstruction, a milestone that an op-ed in the New York Times, by political science professor Adolph L. Reed Jr., stated only “obscures the fact that modern Black Republicans have been more tokens than signs of progress.”
Shortly after Scott became a senator he got a license plate for his car that read USSENATE2. This was something that his close friend and fellow South Carolina Republican, then-Rep. Trey Gowdy, found hilarious. Gowdy teased his buddy about how the talk shows would be all over him every time he failed to signal, ran a stoplight or “played that Christian music he loves too loud.”
Gowdy says Scott chuckled, but only for a second. “He said to me, ‘How many times have you been pulled over in the past year, because for me it’s seven,’ ” Gowdy told me. “ ‘And I want them to know I’m not a threat.’ ” For Gowdy, getting to know Scott helped him realize the truth — so obvious to many — that the experiences of Black Americans are fundamentally different from those of White Americans. “He has opened my eyes to things that I could never have seen except for having the eyes of a Black man loaned to me,” Gowdy says.
Or, as Bakari Sellers, a Democrat who served with Scott in the state legislature, puts it: “He’s a lot of people’s Black friend these days.” With a friend like Scott, the hope is that the Republicans can get a few more people to RSVP to their party. After all, if this year’s presidential election is anywhere near as close as the last one, even a slight boost in Black voters could help tip it to Trump.
“Trump is obsessed with the Black vote,” says Armstrong Williams, himself a Black conservative media personality from South Carolina. And yet, Scott’s ability to help the president on that front may be a mirage. In 2016 Trump won only 4 percent of the Black vote in South Carolina, according to exit polls collected by CNN. Scott didn’t do much better, convincing only 8 percent of Black voters in his state to pull the lever for him. Even Sellers, who considers Scott someone he would “give a kidney to” if asked, says he would never vote for the guy.
South Carolina’s Democratic Party chairman, Trav Robertson, says that Scott should be worried about an electorate that is getting more and more diverse in his state (Scott isn’t up for reelection until 2022). His being Black, Robertson argues, matters a lot less to voters of color than it does to White Republicans. “It makes them feel better about the things they have said or done,” he says, “because they can say, ‘Hey, look: My position with Donald Trump doesn’t matter because we have an African American U.S. senator who is standing with us.”
Since coming to the Senate, Scott has gone much more out on a limb in terms of racial issues than he ever did in the House. That impulse didn’t exactly feel like a choice. In April 2015 police killed a Black man, Walter Scott, not far from the senator’s childhood home in North Charleston. That summer, a white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans attending Mother Emmanuel AME church just over 10 miles away. “I do think that 2015 was a watershed moment where it became apparent to me that I had a unique voice on the issue of racism that still exists in the nation that needed to be addressed,” he told me. “That’s one of the reasons why I became a lot more vocal about the personal pains and challenges I have experienced.”
Scott describes himself as a Republican who “just happened to be Black,” but that perspective feels larger than it has before. As a new senator in 2015, he stood beside Haley when she announced they would be taking down the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Later that year, for his first piece of legislation as a senator, he introduced a bill to get congressional funding for body cameras. That bill didn’t pass, but in 2018, the work he put into criminal justice reform with the likes of Democratic Sen. Cory Booker became law.
After George Floyd’s death in May, Scott and his staff knew that if he didn’t craft a police reform bill in response, it was possible no one in the Republican Party would. “He went to see Leader McConnell and asked what was going to happen,” DeCasper, his chief, says. “And literally the leader said, ‘You tell me.’ It was terrifying.”
What came next, depending on whom you ask, was either a good-faith attempt at reforming the police or a half-measure designed more to give the appearance of action than anything else. The bill Scott crafted would have restricted the use of chokeholds, though not ban them outright, and penalized departments that did not require body cameras. Unlike a Democratic bill that passed in the House, Scott’s bill would not have ended qualified immunity, which protects officers from being held civilly liable for violating the constitutional rights of citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposed what it called Scott’s “rushed” legislation filled with studies and commissions instead of action. Talking about the bill, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Republicans were “trying to get away with murder.”
Without any Democratic support, the bill failed to get out of the Senate, and Scott took to the floor in late June to cry foul. This bill, he claimed, had 70 percent of what Democrats wanted in it, and they were letting “presidential politics” get in the way of compromise. He pointed out that if Democrats were truly serious about issues like banning chokeholds, they hadn’t been acting like it. Cities like Detroit, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia could have banned them years ago on their own, he said, yet hadn’t. Then, he ended the speech, showing he wasn’t above playing politics himself.
“All these communities have been run by Democrats for decades,” he said. “... I’m willing to compete for their vote. Are you?”
In September 2017, the president asked Scott to come to the Oval Office after Scott expressed displeasure with Trump’s comments following riots in Charlottesville. A rally held by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in response to the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue had turned violent when it met counterprotesters, resulting in the death of protester Heather Heyer. Trump afterward remarked that there had been “very fine people” on both sides.
Scott had told reporters he would not “defend the indefensible,” after which the president requested a meeting. As Jennifer DeCasper rode toward the White House gates with her boss, a few thoughts flew through her mind. They were, in no particular order: What the hell are we going to say to the president? Am I going to get fired if this goes poorly? And, how did I get here?
To answer the last question first: Born and raised in Colorado, DeCasper first came to the Hill in 1999 to work for her home-state senator Wayne Allard before leaving Washington for a legal career. She had a daughter, whom she raised on her own, became a hotshot prosecutor — and gave up that job after watching her child crawl over too many gruesome case files. She left in 2009 as the country continued to dig itself out of a financial crisis and took one of the only jobs she could find, working on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport directing airplanes in an orange vest.
In 2010, before Scott came to office, someone handed him her résumé, and he called her in for an interview. She bombed. “He asked me if I’d ever been to the South, and I said Florida,” she says. “And when he brought up his faith, I just lost it. I’ve never cried in an interview before that one.” As a woman of faith, DeCasper was moved by Scott’s devotion, but she left that interview sure she wouldn’t get the job. Scott would tell her later that he was, indeed, weirded out by the encounter, but he prayed on it that night and decided to give her the job anyway. They’ve been a team ever since; DeCasper worked her way up to chief of staff in 2015.
“We sat in the Oval Office,” Scott says, “and when you’re criticizing the president of the United States, talking about the compromising of moral authority, it can strike a nerve with someone who is not typically a person who listens well in those instances. He’s a counterpuncher, so criticizing him is not always the best way to get a positive response out of him. I had no intentions of being critical, just being honest about how I saw the situation.”
In their discussion, Scott didn’t hold back. “He did take the president on a journey of sorts,” DeCasper says. “It was phenomenal to see a Black man informing a White man of his history.” In addition to describing the racism that he and those in his community experience daily, Scott spoke about his grandfather, Artis Ware, who picked cotton in South Carolina and faced brazen discrimination, yet maintained a love of country in his heart. It is the story of his grandfather, says Al Jenkins, one of Scott’s oldest friends who now works for the senator, that gives Scott strength in such high-pressure moments. His grandfather never learned to read or write, but he used to sit at the kitchen table in the mornings with the newspaper in hand, trying to set an example for young Tim.
“His grandfather was the model, the example of how to endure,” says Jenkins. “Can you imagine his life in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s in rural South Carolina dealing with people who called him names on a regular basis, and still getting up each day to do the job? Whatever Tim has to go through, it’s nothing like what his grandfather experienced.”
The Trump meeting was successful in at least one way from Scott’s perspective. When the president asked what he could do to help with the communities that were offended by his remarks, Scott pitched him on the idea of Opportunity Zones, legislation that encourages investment in poor communities, and that with the president’s blessing became part of the 2017 Republican tax overhaul. The meeting was successful in at least one way for the president as well: Afterward, his press office blasted out photos of their discussion, proof that the two were still on the same side (though the office did misspell the senator’s name in the caption as “Tom Scott.”)
“Am I trying to make up for comments made by the president?” Scott told me. “Definitely not. What I am trying to do is make the country stronger. And I can do that by working with the president.”
As for the history lesson, the results were more ambiguous. Scott and DeCasper were surprised by how well Trump seemed to take the conversation in, nodding along without interruption, keeping his focus on the senator as his story unfolded. “In that moment it did strike a nerve,” DeCasper says. But, “I’m not certain what the lasting effects were.”
“Behavioral modifications don’t happen overnight,” she says about Scott’s attempts at tutelage with the president. “It takes forever to teach your 2-year-old manners. What makes you think teaching a 65-year-old, 75-year-old man is going to happen? … It’s just an unrealistic expectation.”
With the November election less than 80 days away, time is running out for Trump to court new voters. He bungled the response to the coronavirus pandemic (which has had an outsized effect on communities of color), and this summer saw a ramping up of Trump’s worst instincts when it comes to race. In response to protests that have sprung up across the country in the wake of Black deaths at the hands of police officers, Trump has taken the opportunity to defend memorials to Confederate generals, call a Black Lives Matter street painting a “symbol of hate” and repeal a housing desegregation rule that he said was “having a devastating impact” on “once thriving Suburban areas.”
Scott may not agree with these impulses, but his detractors will say that his continued support of Trump speaks at least as loud as his criticisms. “The way it comes off to me, the criticisms are not in any shape or form as bold as they need to be,” says Christale Spain, the coordinated campaign director for the South Carolina Democratic Party, about Scott’s calling the president out. “From South Carolina, growing up in Charleston, right in a slave-trade county … [Scott] doesn’t say anything, if you ask me. It amounts to nothing. … It amounts to everything for Trump to have a Black senator standing by his side.”
“He’s been part of the group that enabled Trump to take us to the brink of the destruction of our republic and democracy,” adds Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia.
When Trump leaves office, whether it’s next year or after, there will almost certainly be a battle for what Michael Steele calls “what’s left of the soul of the party.” But the sides will not all be clearly demarcated. There will be a large clutch of die-hard Trump supporters, a smaller group of Never Trumpers. But the vast majority of the GOP will be made up of people somewhere in the murky — some might say, swampy — middle.
On the one hand, if Trump is repudiated, Scott can point to plenty of instances in which he was critical. If Trumpism is reelected, Scott has a list of accomplishments he can point to for proof of his great working relationship with the president. If that’s an overt tactic — having it both ways — it’s one that Trump constantly attempts himself, since he takes so many stances on so many issues that he can always claim to ultimately be right.
“I know that my assignment is fraught with controversy and challenges and misunderstanding,” Scott told me. “People are more interested in how they feel than in objective perspective. And I’ve got to be okay with that.” Ultimately, Scott says everything he does he is doing for history. He knows that people will look back at this president, and at Scott’s relationship with him, and have strong opinions (though he believes perhaps they will be less vicious then). Scott also knows that he can never please the left, and that every time he criticizes the president he angers the base. In this way, Scott is just free to do what he thinks is right.
Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California and the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, says she feels “empathy” for her friend on the other side of the aisle, having to play his role in a party of “extremists.” She was not one of the Democrats who tried to villainize Scott after he put forward his police reform bill. Though she had plenty of problems with it, she saw it as a good-faith attempt by Scott to get something passed. After it failed, the two met in his office to discuss steps forward. They talked about their shared experiences with the police and the shared desire to get something done. “We don’t see the world that differently,” she says. “He’s a Black man above all else.”
Perhaps, Bass thinks, Scott is playing a “long game,” doing what he needs to stick around long enough to play a role in what the Republican Party can look like in the future. Scott has said that his next Senate campaign in 2022 will be his last. There have been rumors of a possible run for governor, and Scott’s friend Gowdy says he has been encouraging him to run for president. It’s an open question whether Scott wants to stay in politics at all. Scott certainly has a lot to gain, politically, by not burning all of his bridges in the party. For now, though, the more pressing matter may be: What does he lose for all the times he stays quiet?
Ben Terris is a Washington Post staff writer.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.