President Trump met with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday, pulling reporters into the room to hear him praise African Americans.
“They’ve lifted up the conscience of our nation in the march toward civil rights, enriched the soul of America in their faith and courage, and they’ve advanced our country in the fields of science, arts and medicine,” the president said.
As he spoke, the CBC’s six-member executive board was sitting on the other side of a table — out of the TV cameras’ shot. That was no accident. The CBC, many members of which boycotted Trump’s inauguration, agreed to meet with the president only if the meeting was substantive.
“The Congressional Black Caucus is not going to be a potted plant or a photo opportunity,” said Rep. Donald A. McEachin (D-Va.), a CBC member who did not attend the meeting. “He did a photo op with the presidents of historically black colleges, and they got nothing.”
After eight years of working hand in glove with the first black president, the CBC is facing off against a president who portrayed that presidency as a disaster for black Americans — and spent years demanding Barack Obama’s birth certificate and college records. On the trail, speaking before largely white audiences, Trump would ask black voters “what the hell do you have to lose” by voting Republican.
The CBC’s leaders arrived at Wednesday’s meeting with a policy memo titled “A Lot to Lose.” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the CBC’s chairman, was joined by Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), André Carson (D-Ind.) and Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.).
“We never thought we’d agree on everything in this meeting, but the one thing we did ask is for both sides to be candid,” Richmond said afterward. “He listened, and we talked, and we proposed a lot of solutions, many of which I think he had not heard before, and we’re going to keep advocating.”
Wednesday’s meeting grew out of an awkward incident last month, when during a 77-minute news conference Trump asked April Ryan, a black reporter with the American Urban Radio Networks, if she could set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Are they friends of yours?” Trump asked.
Ryan noted that she was a journalist, and not part of the CBC. “I’m sure they’re watching right now,” she said.
That gaffe started negotiations about a possible meeting, one that CBC members wanted to avoid turning into presidential PR. Since winning the presidency, Trump has had several awkward moments involving African Americans. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump thanked black voters who decided to sit out the election: “That was big.”
At an event he held to mark the outset of Black History Month, Trump rambled about his 80-point defeat among black voters, hypothesized about what could get him to a majority of the black vote in 2020, and mentioned the abolitionist Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Douglass died in 1895.
“He has not surrounded himself with people who can keep him informed,” said Lawrence, whose state broke for Trump in part because of weakened black turnout. “He painted us as one homogenous group — broke, being shot at, uneducated. He needs to be given the opportunity to learn.”
The CBC’s proposals for Trump did sync with what he’d occasionally promised on the trail. During the press scrum, Trump said that “every American child has a right to grow up in a safe community, to attend great schools, to graduate with access to high-paying jobs,” implying that African Americans had been denied this. But CBC members are waiting for actual policy proposals.
“There could be something, perhaps, in the area of infrastructure, or in better employment opportunities,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “I can’t point to anything he’s done so far.”
Instead, in the White House’s “skinny budget,” spending for domestic programs was cut to make the math work on increased defense funding. In a Wednesday article for the political journal Democracy, Matthew Colangelo, deputy assistant to the president for economic policy in the Obama administration, listed other Trump decisions that disproportionately hurt black voters, such as an executive order that weakened the Federal Housing Administration and a Justice Department decision to abandon a legal challenge — which had been winning in court — against alleged racial gerrymandering in Texas.
“In just two months, the Trump Administration has already made it harder for African Americans to buy a house, to vote, to enjoy clean air and water, and to retire with dignity,” wrote Colangelo. “The President’s campaign pledge was correct: The results of his policies for African Americans have in fact been ‘amazing’ — it is amazing how much harm can be done so quickly.”
And CBC members did not quite dodge the photo op. Late Wednesday evening, White House press secretary Sean Spicer tweeted a photo of CBC members sitting around Trump in the Oval Office. The people in the photo shrugged it off.
“Our objective is to walk away having given the president an opportunity to hear, to be enlightened, and to start a dialogue for the next four years — if he stays in office,” said Lawrence.