The stumble newly highlighted an uncomfortable truth for a White House that has projected an overwhelmingly white image of itself, from Oval Office action shots, which pull back the curtain on the coterie of people with their hands on the levers of power, to photos of the intern class, which reveal the crop of young people on whom the Trump administration bestows opportunity each season. After President Trump faced criticism for naming a Cabinet more white and male than any since Ronald Reagan’s, his press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, said to wait and see “the level of diversity throughout his entire administration.” But personnel data reviewed by Reuters indicates that Trump’s whole bureaucracy mirrors the homogeneity of his top leadership.
There was one notable exception: Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former “Apprentice” star whose stature in Trump’s world was made concrete by her salary of $179,700, the highest possible for White House staff. This despite the fact that the precise duties she performed as director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison remained vague.
Her departure eight months ago cast a harsh light on the absence of black staffers with the president’s ear. As the former senior aide stormed back into the headlines during the weekend, the question arose: “Who now is that person?” asked Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week.” Who, he asked, “is the most prominent, high-level adviser to the president on the West Wing staff right now?”
First, Conway pointed to Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who does not work on Trump’s staff but rather oversees his own at the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, across the Mall from the White House.
“I’m asking you about the White House staff,” Karl clarified. “I’m asking you about the people the president is with every day.”
That’s when Conway told viewers about “Ja’Ron.”
“We have Ja’Ron, who’s done a fabulous job, been very involved with — he’s been very involved with Jared Kushner and President Trump on prison reform from the beginning,” Conway said. “He’s been there from the beginning. He worked with Omarosa and others of us.”
When Karl asked if the adviser in question had an office in the West Wing, Conway answered that he had an office “in the EOP, absolutely, the Executive Office of the President,” mostly housed in the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“But in the West Wing,” Karl said. “What does that say to have not a single senior adviser in the West Wing who’s African American?”
Conway said she “didn’t say that there wasn’t,” but when pressed — “Who is?” Karl asked — she failed to name anyone.
“There are plenty of people,” Conway said. “If you’re going by that and not by the actions of the president, which you probably should, then you should look at the fact that we have a number of different minorities. And the fact is that this president is doing well for all Americans.”
The specific adviser that Conway was able to name, at least partially, was Ja’Ron K. Smith, as Marc Short, Trump’s former director of legislative affairs, clarified on ABC later in the program. He also named another man, Daris Meeks, “who is head of policy for the vice president of the United States,” Short said. But Meeks no longer serves as Mike Pence’s domestic policy director, a role he left early this year to rejoin a D.C.-based law firm, Venable.
A White House release in February brought news of Smith’s new role in the Executive Office of the President, along with the appointment of more than 30 others. He is special assistant to the president for domestic policy, having previously served as a policy adviser on urban affairs and revitalization. In his current role, he makes $115,000, according to White House records.
A Facebook message left for Smith was not answered. According to his LinkedIn page, he is a 2004 graduate of Howard University and a 2012 graduate of the Howard University School of Divinity. He has previously worked for Generation Opportunity, a Koch-funded conservative advocacy organization, and in various roles on the Hill. A tweet last January from Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s lone black Republican, congratulated Smith on his White House job and said he had once been a staffer in his office. He also worked for several years as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, according to a biography on the website of a football league and support group called Routelife.
Speaking on the “Holistic Housing Podcast” last year, in an episode titled “The Ja’Ron Smith Guide to Self-Actualization,” the Cleveland native said he had played football in high school and became interested in politics when a coach helped him land a summer job.
“I always wanted to do something to be a leader and change the demographic or the current status of some of the neighborhoods I grew up with, and the neighborhoods that my parents grew up around,” he said. “I grew up in a single-parent household and came out of the ’80s, which some people refer to as the crack epidemic, and in the wake of that, I saw and grew up around a lot of blight. We had great communities. I had a great childhood. You know, it wasn’t filled with violence or the things you would think growing up in a neighborhood like that.”
But seeing classmates “fall off the ladder of opportunity,” Smith said on the podcast, made him want to “represent the interests of people who can’t really speak for themselves.”
He studied finance at Howard in the hopes of opening a bank one day, but an opportunity to intern on the Hill arose soon after the first election of George W. Bush.
“I was really interested to learn more about Republicans, because growing up where I grew up, ‘Republicans’ was like a bad word,” he said.
He attained a position in the office of Republican Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. The former college football quarterback and Baptist minister became the first African American elected statewide in Oklahoma when he won a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in 1990.
Smith said he learned that his liberal sympathies masked more conservative leanings.
“I like to identify myself as a classic liberal, but then I had to learn what it meant to be a conservative, and it really was, you know, cultivating individuality, and I was like, ‘well that’s what I’m all about,’ because I think everyone has talents and gifts if given the right opportunity,” he said. “That really led me on a whole pursuit of truth and figuring out what’s the right way to revitalize and create opportunity for people.”
Over the subsequent 10 years, Smith said, he rose to become a full-time staffer on the Hill, including for then-Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, and became involved in all aspects of economic policy, from banking to transportation.
He said he was shocked to pick up the phone on New Year’s Eve and get an offer to work in the White House. But he was happy to contribute on issues that mattered to him.
“From the spiritual end for me, I always try to walk in the path of least resistance and follow maybe where the signs are leading me,” Smith said. He said he is most focused on helping people “self-actualize.” From housing to education to health to better neighborhoods, he said, “those are the things around that help communities flourish, but it all to me starts with the individual.”
He described a wide-ranging portfolio in his work on urban affairs and revitalization, from housing to welfare — a term he doesn’t like, he said — to higher education to criminal justice. “I do a little bit of banking policy,” he added. Photographs show him participating in events on everything from prison reentry to minority business development.
One of the questions that concerns him, he said on the podcast, is “how do we create a better system for public assistance, where it doesn’t necessarily handicap you but opens up more opportunity and is a springboard?”
He does sometimes interact with the president.
“I’m walking through the East Wing and I run into the president,” he recounted. “We talked to each other. It was cool. It’s surreal and it definitely never gets old.”
Smith may not have an office in the West Wing, but he said the office he does occupy has a view of the prime real estate.
“I got a nice office that looks at the West Wing,” he said. “Each morning I sit there and I pray for the country. I look at the building and say, ‘God, I can’t believe I’m here.’”
Amber Ferguson contributed to this report.