The question posed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was simple: Does President Trump believe that Rob Porter, his former staff secretary who resigned after his two ex-wives accused him of spousal abuse, is falsely accused?
The first part of Conway’s response was revealing in its own way.
“The president believes, as he said the other day, you have to consider all sides,” she said. “He has said this in the past about incidents that relate to him, as well.” A cynic might suggest that Trump’s insistence that people apply an innocent-until-proven-guilty standard to the world of politics is a bit self-serving, given the allegations of inappropriate behavior he himself has faced.
Conway then made the case that women should be fans of Trump.
“But this president has — I think he’s doing a great job for America’s women. We have to look at the full picture. You have 800,000 women took new jobs last year because of his leadership. You have women who work at over 300 companies now that are getting wages and benefits and capital investments happening within their own communities. We are a safer, more prosperous nation. That includes all of us, including the nation’s women, because of Donald Trump’s leadership.”
Conway came to the White House from a career in polling and consulting focused on women. It would be interesting to present this situation to her in that role — a staffer for a president defending his failure to forcefully condemn spousal abuse by pointing to national job growth — to get her thoughts. Perhaps she would advise such a president that demonstrating leadership to women (or any demographic group) is precisely about taking advantage of opportunities to leverage the presidential pulpit and not about appealing to broader trends for which presidents can seldom take full credit.
Outside of any broader context, Conway’s “800,000 more jobs” line seems like a compelling one. With a surge like that under Trump, how could women not appreciate Trump’s efforts?
Well, first of all, job growth for women under Trump has been slightly lower than in the last years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that about 1 million more women were employed at the end of the year than at the beginning. Over the course of 2015, though, about 1.4 million more women gained employment. In 2016, the number was about 1.5 million.
The total number of women who’ve gained employment under Trump — including in January — is lower than any year in Obama’s second term.
Of course, more women get jobs as the population expands, as well. The measure of how many women of working age are employed is called the employment-population ratio. From 2012 until about mid-2017, that percentage increased for women. Since, it has fallen a bit; in January, the percentage was only slightly higher than when Trump took office.
But even if these numbers had been exceptionally good, it’s not clear why Trump would deserve the credit. Conway says 800,000 women got jobs “because of Trump’s leadership.” How? What’s the flowchart at play here? The government can certainly spur job growth, and business has embraced Trump’s presidency. But there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the increase in employment among women, suggesting either that Obama’s leadership was better at creating jobs for women or that neither president and their very different policies had a huge effect.
We’ve heard this argument from Trump’s team before. During his State of the Union address, Trump patted himself on the back for black unemployment hitting a record low — ignoring that this was part of a long-term trend that began before he was president. (It was also undercut pretty dramatically as a talking point when new jobs numbers came out that Friday showing a spike in the black unemployment rate.)
This is Trump’s argument, though: I don’t need to show specific sympathy to women or communities of color, because I’m bringing them more jobs and a better economy. (This was, in fact, much of Trump’s sales pitch to black voters before the election, too.) Trump is very aware of how he can cater to the needs and demands of demographic groups, certainly. He has repeatedly used language and advocated policies embraced by the minority of Americans who make up his base. He simply chooses not to similarly speak or act in ways that are sought by other groups (other groups, we’ll note, who didn’t vote for him).
Demonstrating concern for demographic groups as president means not arguing that macroeconomic trends are your gift to them. It means, instead, taking advantage of symbolic moments to show support. It means that when a staffer is accused of having abused his ex-wives, you use that moment as an opportunity to excoriate domestic abuse and, perhaps, announce some sort of program aimed at raising awareness about the issue. It means that when a young woman is murdered by a racist at a rally organized by extremists, Klansmen and neo-Nazis, you don’t suggest that the dead woman and the Nazis both had some good points worth hearing.
Trump knows that bashing NFL players who kneel before games is a winner for his supporters. He either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that defending a man accused of spousal abuse is not going to endear him to many women, especially given reports that Trump has privately condemned Porter’s alleged behavior. Trump is missing a moment to make a strong statement and is instead demanding that Porter be given the benefit of the doubt for some reason.
The president remains deeply unpopular among black Americans, and his approval among women started low and slipped lower over the course of 2017. There are a lot of reasons Trump will probably never be terribly popular with either of those groups, including that each tends to be Democratic, and partisanship is a powerful factor. But Trump could nibble around the edges by not giving members of those groups reason to think he is actively biased against them.
Which they do. Nearly 8 in 10 black people think Trump is biased against black people, as do nearly 6 in 10 women. About as many women think Trump is also biased against women (as do more than 8 in 10 blacks).
Why? In part, certainly, because of how he responds at moments when people are looking to see what he’s going to say.