President Trump, as he campaigned for the job, touted a “New Deal for Black America,” promising to be their “greatest champion” and to rebuild the inner cities.
But two months into his presidency it's unclear how Trump plans to deliver on his promises. Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus stepped in Wednesday to help.
During their first White House meeting with Trump, the caucus executive team laid out a 130-page policy agenda that includes the core elements of Trump’s campaign: investing in infrastructure and economic opportunity to combat poverty.
“We set our markers and made sure he could no longer say he did not know,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said in an interview following the 45-minute meeting. “We needed him to understand the impact of his decisions and lack of action.”
The document — titled “We Have a Lot to Lose” — was the CBC's answer to a question Trump asked frequently on the campaign trail as he implored black voters to give him a chance.
“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs,” Trump said during a campaign stop in Michigan. “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Thus far, many black lawmakers remain skeptical, given Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric and his recent budget proposal to gut many programs for the poor as well as agencies that promote minority entrepreneurship and fund black financial institutions.
“I told him, ‘Sir, your budget is not reflective of your campaign rhetoric. You are now on notice that this is what we have to lose,’ ” Lawrence said, recounting the meeting. “He did not push back. He was not rude. He did listen. I don’t know how far this is going to go, but time will tell.”
The meeting, which started in the Cabinet Room and moved into the Oval Office, covered a range of topics including criminal justice, education, infrastructure and poverty in urban and rural America. Seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended, along with Vice President Pence and other administration officials, including Omarosa Manigault of “Apprentice” fame.
“Throughout my campaign I pledged to focus on improving conditions for African American citizens,” Trump said at the start of the meeting before the media pool was escorted out. “This means more to me than anybody could understand.”
During the meeting, the caucus tweeted out updates under the hashtag #ALotToLose.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) highlighted a CBC proposal to require federal agencies to spend 10 percent of their budgets on counties where at least 20 percent of the population has been living in poverty for the last 30 years. The proposal would benefit many low-income Americans, not just blacks, lawmakers told Trump. Two-thirds of the 485 counties that would qualify are represented by Republicans, according to the policy document.
Implementing the initiative to uplift poor communities is all the more important now, lawmakers said, given Trump’s budget proposal to cut health care, home-heating assistance, job training and affordable housing for low-income Americans.
The lawmakers also told Trump that if his stated ambition to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure does result in a bill, the White House should ensure that minority- and women-owned businesses have a chance to compete for federal dollars.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), the first African American to represent Wisconsin in Congress, shared her experience of depending on welfare and food stamps to survive after becoming pregnant in college.
She told Trump that Republican efforts “to demonize poor people and criminalize poverty was just an effort to justify an upending of entitlement programs like Medicaid and food stamps.”
“These efforts were designed to create a permanent underclass in order to feed the need for a low-wage workforce,” Moore said she told Trump. “I said, ‘Quite frankly, Mr. President, more of the people who voted for you will be impacted than ours.’ ”
Moore criticized Trump’s proposal to turn anti-poverty programs into microloans for poor people. “I told him I don’t think that’s going to work on the street corners of Detroit,” she said.
Instead, Trump should expand microloans to black business owners.
She said Trump’s budget and policies so far are “really contrary to the kinds of promises that he’s made. And it has an impact on more than just black people.”
Moore said Trump responded by saying that President Obama wasn't able to improve conditions for poor Americans during his tenure — as though he were trying to “absolve himself” of responsibility.
Still, Moore said that although she entered the meeting with a “healthy dose of skepticism,” she left the White House with a “sense of cautious optimism.”
The White House said that Trump is committed to “improving conditions for distressed communities” and will work with the Congressional Black Caucus to improve economic opportunities and invest in infrastructure.
Trump on Wednesday invited the caucus to meet with him regularly — initially offering to make room in his schedule each month, but later saying it would be more realistic to convene quarterly. He also offered to make his Cabinet secretaries available to delve more deeply into the policy solutions the caucus proposed.
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said after the meeting that Trump and the caucus found points of agreement and common goals, such as making inner-city neighborhoods as safe as possible — but they differ on how to proceed.
Trump’s path follows the lines of “law and order,” he said, while the caucus emphasizes “opportunity and education.” The caucus plans to present details of its solutions to Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“We consistently fight for poverty no matter if it’s white poverty, minority poverty, black, brown poverty, inner-city or rural,” Richmond said.