About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this winter.
Whether she walked out the door on her own or was escorted out by security personnel, Omarosa Manigault’s departure from the White House this week means that there is no longer an African American in President Trump’s inner circle.
And the response to the news that she is resigning, or was fired, from her job as director of communications for the office of public liaison suggests that most people didn’t think her presence made a difference anyway because Trump’s administration has been indifferent or outright hostile to communities of color.
Political pundits on TV and armchair analysts on social media reacted with snark and shade upon hearing that Manigault was leaving the West Wing. Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was a bit taken aback that “people are celebrating — on the left and the right.” Initial reports described a confrontation at a Christmas party with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that resulted in her forcible removal from the premises. Manigault called that description “100 percent false.”
White House sources say Kelly fired her, but she says she resigned on her own.
Manigault’s combative persona and penchant for the spotlight might have contributed to her rocky tenure and unceremonious exit from the Trump administration. But African Americans in Republican administrations have historically struggled to balance allegiance to their party leaders and to black people skeptical of the GOP’s commitment to improving the conditions in their communities. They are not always embraced by the overwhelming white leadership of the GOP nor by black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats and liberals.
“This is not a new experience for African Americans working in presidential administrations that are hostile to civil rights,” said Rigueur, who wrote about the subject in a 2014 book entitled, “The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.” Black Cabinet members and presidential advisers have privately vented about being “disrespected, having their ideas blocked or thrown in the trash.”
She cited Samuel Pierce, who many believe was unfairly blamed for corruption and cronyism when he was secretary of housing and urban development under President Ronald Reagan. Colin Powell feuded with other top aides when he served as secretary of state in George W. Bush’s White House, and he was singled out for criticism over the Bush administration’s false claims to justify the invasion of Iraq.
“At the same time they’re being treated really shabbily by these administrations, they feel like they’re being forced into being publicly loyal,” Rigueur said.
In interviews since her departure, Manigault has talked about the difficulty of being the only black woman among Trump’s senior aides. In a Thursday interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” she said she has “seen things that made me uncomfortable, that have upset me and affected me deeply and emotionally and affected my people and my community.” Later Thursday, during an interview on ABC’s “Nightline,” she defended Trump, saying that “he is not a racist.”
Rigueur acknowledged that Democratic administrations can also take actions that are not in the interests of black people. During last year’s Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton was dogged by criticism of her support for President Bill Clinton’s anti-crime policies that helped fuel racial disparity in the prison population and aggressive policing tactics in black communities. But, Rigueur argued, Democrats sometimes will respond to some pressure.
Clinton, in the first major policy speech of her campaign, said she regretted having supported those policies and pledged to push for criminal justice reforms. Trump, on the other hand, ran a campaign that was critical of the Black Lives Matter movement and that described African Americans as living in dilapidated, crime-ridden communities. “What the hell do you have lose?” he said in asking blacks to vote for him instead of Clinton.
“With Republicans, historically it has been very difficult to push them, and now we have arrived at a place where it is impossible,” she said, referring to the hard-line posture of the Trump administration. Even if Manigault tried to appeal on behalf of black people, “there were so many signs, from the jump, very clear signals that this is not going to go anywhere.”
Manigault is a longtime Trump loyalist. Their relationship dates back 14 years, when she became the breakout star in the first season of Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” She enthusiastically campaigned for Trump, defending him against allegations of racism and sexism.
Like Trump and many of his top advisers and Cabinet secretaries, Manigault had no public policy experience, although she did serve as a low-level White House aide during Clinton’s presidency. Longtime black Republicans with government and policy experience have protested being shut out from working in the administration, and many accused Manigault of blocking them.
Manigault has endured much criticism for badly managing a campaign to increase funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). She boasted that Trump would do more than President Barack Obama, who was accused of not understanding the importance of the institutions that enroll and graduate the vast majority of black students.
Instead, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, issued a statement praising HBCUs as “pioneers of school choice.” In fact, they were founded because Jim Crow laws prohibited black students from going to white colleges. There were no substantive discussions about increased support. Some HBCU presidents felt that the White House, which released a photo of them with Trump in the Oval Office, had used them as props to bolster Trump’s image with blacks.
Symone D. Sanders, a Democratic strategist who was a top aide in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, said the problem for Manigault is that African Americans cannot say for sure that she was fighting for them during her tenure in the administration. In the latest Gallup poll, Trump’s approval rating among African Americans is 8 percent.
“Some people argue that Omarosa was not necessarily the best advocate for black people in the Trump White House. She has absolutely been an advocate for historically black colleges and universities,” Symone Sanders said. “But when we see some of the policies and rhetoric coming out of the White House, it’s hard for folks to believe she’s been effective.”
“I’m a progressive and a Democrat, but I don’t believe everybody needs to be a progressive or a Democrat,” she said. Like many in the Washington political community, Sanders says she has friends whose “ideals align with the Republican Party, and that’s fine.”
“The problem comes when folks put their values aside,” she said. “With Omarosa, a lot of folks viewed her as someone who put her values aside for politics.”
Sanders, like Rigueur, says it is important for African Americans to be represented in all levels of government. Both said the lack of diversity in the Trump administration was a cause for concern, as did Manigault in her “Nightline” interview. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at her Thursday news briefing, “We have a really diverse team across the board at the White House.”
Trump has appointed only one black Cabinet member, Ben Carson, who serves as secretary of housing and urban development.
When Carson was appointed, he hired Shermichael Singleton as the agency’s communications director. While working on Carson’s campaign during the GOP primary, Singleton penned an op-ed critical of Trump’s rhetoric toward communities of color. The article surfaced during a background check, and Singleton was fired.
Singleton, 27, said some of his peers “thought I was nuts” when he restarted a college Republicans chapter at Morehouse College in 2008, the year that Obama launched his historic and successful bid to become the country’s first black president.
“People understand, even though they don’t necessarily agree with Republicans or conservatism, that we do need to have voices and for us to have influence on the other side,” he said. “Where our community has great apprehension, and rightly so, and when they question African American Republicans and conservatives is, at what point do you say to the party that a line has to be drawn?”
He said he was appalled by Trump’s comments blaming “both sides” after a counterprotester was killed during a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, last summer. Singleton also criticized the president and the party’s support for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual assault and misconduct involving teenage girls when he was in his 30s. He also was critical of efforts by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to roll back criminal justice reforms, which included reducing sentences for some nonviolent offenders.
In the face of such political and policy moves, Singleton said black Republicans and conservatives “should not be surprised when our communities say to us, ‘Why aren’t you guys saying anything?’ That is where a lot of the annoyance and frustration comes from.”
“I think it’s a matter of courage,” Singleton said. “Just because you belong to a party doesn’t mean you have to acquiesce and go along with everything.”
More from About US: