President Trump: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose — I never met John Lewis, actually, I don’t believe.”
In the president’s response to questions about Lewis, he prompts the question: How will history remember Donald Trump — particularly on issues related to the civil rights of Black people?
If the president didn’t know Lewis, one could argue that that was a choice he made. Lewis was one of the most well-known lawmakers in the House, having served in Congress for more than three decades. After having his skull cracked open while marching for the voting rights of Black people, he became one of “the Big Six”: the leaders of some of the most influential organizations during the civil rights movement. Years later, he entered politics and came to be viewed by many of his peers as the “Conscience of the Congress” for often providing moral clarity on how policies could have an impact on people.
Trump could have met Lewis to get to know him better, if he had desired to do so, but it’s not clear whether he ever made an attempt. What is certain is that despite admittedly not knowing Lewis, Trump dismissed the late lawmaker as being an inconsequential politician.
Days before Trump’s inauguration, Lewis said that it would be “very difficult” to build a relationship with the president, given that he did not view Trump “as a legitimate president” because of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump, clearly agitated by the allegation that would eventually be supported by the intelligence community, went on social media to attack Lewis by calling him “all talk” and “no action.”
Those who knew Lewis — including members of Trump’s political party — knew that the congressman was not “all talk” and had been involved in the action of activism, advocacy and policy for decades. It’s not clear whether the president knew that, but what was obvious is that Trump never got over Lewis’s decision to boycott his inauguration. Trump said as much in the Axios interview.
Swan: Do you find John Lewis impressive?Trump: I can’t say one way or the other. I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive. But no, he didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches. And that’s okay. That’s his right. And, again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should’ve come. I think he made a big mistake. I think he should’ve come.
The willful absence of such a well-respected figure at two of the biggest ceremonies of Trump’s presidency because of his disapproval of the president left a mark on Trump. Lewis was not the only lawmaker to boycott the Trump presidency or to deem his election illegitimate. But his actions and the words directed at Trump constantly threatened a narrative about Trump’s record on race issues that the president has increasingly attempted to put forth as he seeks reelection.
In the interview, Trump stated something that he has mentioned repeatedly — his belief that no one has done more for Black Americans than he has.
Lewis disagreed, and so does an overwhelming majority of Black Americans. Trump’s job approval with Black Americans stands at 8 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll. And with frequent attacks on anti-racism protesters, the Black Lives Matter movement and politicians who are vocal in their criticism of Trump’s stances on race issues, the president’s standing with Black Americans does not show any signs of changing.
And there is a chance that that will be a significant part of Trump’s legacy with many Americans and, perhaps, many of those outside of the country as well.
The Trump presidency is not over, and the history books have yet to be written. But for many Americans — particularly those who are Black, history will remember Trump as an individual who often centered himself in conversations about how to make America great for Black Americans. And while he remains confident that he is the president — or, perhaps, the person — who has done more for Black Americans than anyone else, it is clear that most Americans — and especially Black Americans — disagree. A majority — 52 percent — of Americans think Trump is a racist, according to a June 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov poll. And that number jumps to nearly 75 percent when controlled for Black Americans specifically.
And until his final days, signs suggest that Lewis felt the same.
A year ago, on the House floor, Lewis condemned racist tweets from Trump directed at women of color in the House:
“I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of government, there is no room for racism,” he said.