Omarosa Manigault was incredulous.
As she was leaving a gathering of African American members of Congress in the Oval Office, a group of reporters cornered her. For months, the Trump administration had sent strong signals that it would increase support to historically black colleges and universities. But President Trump’s recent budget request contained no new cash for the schools.
The reporters wanted Manigault — a top White House aide and one of Trump’s most high-profile African American supporters — to explain what happened.
“Everything got cut, but did HBCUs get cut? No! . . . And I think that we should be applauded for that,” Manigault said last week in a video posted on Politic365.com. “Seriously. This is a lean budget. This is a very aggressive and lean budget, and yet, HBCUs were protected.
“Can a sister get props?”
That is the central question of Manigault’s brief tenure as assistant to the president, as she has worked to bridge a divide between black America and the man she has long supported.
Manigault, 43, is fiercely loyal to Donald Trump, whose decision to cast her as an alpha-female villain in the first season of “The Apprentice” more than a decade ago made her a reality television celebrity. Manigault also appears to have Trump’s ear, and some black political observers see her as an important ally in a White House that is overwhelmingly white and male.
[Omarosa Manigault works to build bridges for her former ‘Apprentice’ boss]
But if her devotion explains how Manigault wound up in Trump’s White House as the highest-ranking African American in the West Wing, it is far less easy to explain exactly what she’s doing there. Some African American political insiders already have concluded that she is ineffective, and she is routinely derided on social media as simply providing cover for a president deeply unpopular with African Americans. Some black Republicans were particularly critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the HBCU initiative, which included a White House meeting with the school officials that some viewed as little more than a photo op for the president.
“She raised expectations too high, and now it’s turned into a negative,” said Raynard Jackson, a longtime Republican strategist. “This shows a lack of political understanding. This is Politics 101.”
Manigault was among the first black people with any name recognition to publicly support Trump’s presidential bid. She forcefully defended the New York businessman against criticism that he is racist and sexist. Manigault has granted some media interviews since arriving in Washington, but she canceled a meeting with The Washington Post and did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House also did not respond to questions about Manigault’s official responsibilities, which so far have publicly been centered on issues relating to black America. None of those events has gone especially well.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Manigault said during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” that as director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison she was planning an event at the White House to celebrate Black History Month “and it’s going to be extravagant.”
On Feb. 1, she sat smiling next to Trump as he stumbled into a major gaffe, when he talked about abolitionist Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive. He said Douglass — who died in 1895 — “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I’ve noticed.”
[Trump implied Frederick Douglass was alive. The abolitionist’s family offered a ‘history lesson.’]
When the black college presidents came to seek more funding on Feb. 27, new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a statement applauding HBCUs for being “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Most of the colleges were founded to serve black students in response to Jim Crow segregation.
And when Trump signed an executive order the next day that moved a task force on HBCUs from the Education Department to the White House, neither the order nor Trump’s subsequent budget request included the 5 to 10 percent funding increases the college presidents sought.
[Trump moves program on historically black colleges into the White House]
Far from the “extravagant” celebration Manigault touted, the administration’s opening and closing events for Black History Month were met with ridicule.
Jackson penned a blistering column in February for Black Press USA arguing that Manigault doesn’t represent the Republican Party and isn’t a credible go-between for the black community and Trump. Not only is she a recent convert to the GOP who does not know or appreciate black Republicans’ struggle to make the party more inclusive, he argued, she doesn’t have the relationships or the political acumen to be an effective advocate.
“I have a personal relationship with my physician, but I don’t go to him for tax advice,” Jackson said in an interview, rejecting the notion that her friendship with Trump makes her a powerful force for the black community.
But because she is one of the few African Americans in Trump’s immediate orbit, others caution against dismissing her.
“It’s important that we take Omarosa seriously, irrespective of how we feel about her,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor of public policy at Harvard. “The idea of having access to the White House in ways that people of color and civil rights agencies had under Obama — that’s gone. She appears to be the black person who is closest to Donald Trump. So it’s important to think very seriously about what she represents.”
The HBCU initiative was an opportunity for Manigault to showcase her influence within the Trump administration.
Manigault and her supporters pointed to the fact that she attended three HBCUs as evidence of her passion concerning the issue and determination to fight for it. And it was a chance to show African Americans, who as a group voted solidly against Trump, that the new president could be more responsive to black colleges than former president Barack Obama, who oversaw a decline in funding for HBCUs during his first term.
Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson, who served as executive director of a White House initiative to support the colleges under Obama, said the outcome of the meeting with Trump was underwhelming.
“The funding that was implied by the warm greeting that we got in late February has yet to be realized,” he said.
But he described Manigault as an asset regardless. “The best advocacy HBCUs can have is someone who understands HBCUs in the inner circle of the president,” Wilson said. “Omarosa Manigault certainly understands the value of HBCUs, and she is certainly in the president’s inner circle.”
But has Manigault oversold her influence with the administration? Right after the college presidents’ visit, Manigault went on the Tom Joyner radio show and argued that under the Obama administration there had been “a ton of unclaimed Pell Grants,” a reference to a $10 million surplus in the subsidy program for students in financial need. She vowed that Trump would make that money available for students to “fund their educations at historically black colleges and universities.” Instead, the Trump budget seeks to spend nearly $4 million in other areas.
Manigault doesn’t publicly display a strong political or ideological identity; she was supporting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid before Trump announced his candidacy. Neither does she have any strong public ties to any individual charities or causes. She said in an episode of “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” several years ago that, while on a humanitarian trip to Africa, she stared into the eyes of a child dying of AIDS and heard her calling to become ordained, which she achieved in 2011. She was an assistant minister at the Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles when she left to join the Trump campaign last year.
It is Trump himself who compels Manigault to his side. She asks people to look at her as evidence that the president is inclusive and wants to see minorities succeed.
“I am living the American Dream because of Donald Trump,” she told the Hollywood Reporter in December. “Look at my career, the wealth and exposure that I’ve had; it’s very difficult to make the argument that Donald Trump doesn’t like black people and black women.”
Black Republicans often face extra scrutiny because “they are minorities in their political community and political minorities in their racial community,” Wright Rigueur said. She said black voters want to know: “Are you representing our interests?”
That’s an even bigger question for a black person supporting Trump, who, despite friendly relationships with individuals such as Manigault and boxing promoter Don King, has drawn scorn for his racially charged rhetoric against African Americans. Among the more sensational was Trump’s longtime call for Obama to prove he is a U.S. citizen. (About two months before the election, Trump conceded that Obama was born in the United States.) Besides Manigault, the only high-ranking African American in the Trump administration is Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development.
Armstrong Williams, another longtime Republican strategist and close adviser to Carson, said Manigault’s influence goes beyond “the so-called black agenda.” He said Manigault has input on press secretary Sean Spicer’s daily briefings and that “she carries a lot of weight” with candidates seeking ambassadorships.
He also marveled at her relationship with and access to Trump.
“It’s just amazing to watch,” Williams said. “Not only does he trust her, he’s comfortable with her. It’s almost as if she’s like a daughter to him.”
Manigault’s loyalty might be a more valuable currency to Trump than her experience, said Sophia Angeli Nelson, an author and political commentator who has worked in GOP administrations and in Congress.
Of course, there are African American politicos and wonks who have more history with the Republican Party and its agenda. But in this White House, “they might last 10 minutes,” she said.
“They may be more knowledgeable, but Trump wouldn’t respect them and wouldn’t listen to their opinion,” she said. “In Trump’s world, loyalty means everything to him. And, if that’s the case, Omarosa is the right person.”
When “The View’s” Sunny Hostin, who is Puerto Rican and African American, suggested to Manigault that Trump was “using you for optics,” she retorted, “No one uses me.”
She then talked about growing up in public housing in Youngstown, Ohio. “I grew up on welfare, on Section 8 housing. My father was killed when I was 7 years old,” she said. She went to public schools and then Central State University and Payne Theological Seminary, both historically black schools in Wilberforce, Ohio. She also earned a master’s degree and did additional graduate work toward a doctorate — but did not complete the degree — at another historically black college, Howard University.
“So I earned my way to sit in the White House,” Manigault said. “No one gave me anything, okay?”
Before being tapped for “The Apprentice,” she worked briefly in the White House during former president Bill Clinton’s tenure. She received mixed reviews on her stints in low-level support positions in logistics and personnel, with some describing her as smart and hard-working and others saying she was disruptive and struggled with assigned tasks.
It has been seven years since Manigault’s last major role in a reality TV show, but her reality TV alter ego still makes cameo appearances from time to time. Last month, while shopping with friends at a mall in suburban Washington, she called store security to report that two “fat ladies” were harassing her. The following week, she had a heated, public argument with White House reporter April Ryan, a former friend who said Manigault was trying to smear her name by planting stories that she was being paid by the Clinton campaign.
[Omarosa and her bridesmaids went shopping — and an ugly, political scene erupted]
Allyson Carpenter, student government president at Howard, said that the public perception of Manigault doesn’t match the person she has gotten to know during the past several months; they met at an event last year and have had numerous conversations since. Although Carpenter is highly critical of how the Trump administration has managed the HBCU initiative, she does not question Manigault’s commitment to black schools.
“I think she’s absolutely a genuine person,” Carpenter said. “I think she really does care about the issues facing the black community.”
Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, serving from 2009 to 2011, said the episode with the historically black colleges was a “classic example” of how the Trump administration is hurting itself by not connecting with more-experienced black Republicans.
“The response from the HBCU presidents has been ho-hum, and some have referred to it as disappointing. That is not the kind of response you want after the president makes a big production around signing an order like that,” Steele said.
Last week, seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Trump in the Oval Office. They told Trump they are concerned about his budget and policy positions, and they related how they don’t appreciate his characterization of black communities as rife with crime and poverty. Sources said Manigault made it clear that the attendance — seven of 49 Black Caucus members — was irritatingly small.
Trump tried to get the group to stand behind him at his desk. The lawmakers declined, ruining a potentially powerful photo op.
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not note that Manigault earned a master’s degree at Howard University. She has pursued, but has not completed, a doctorate there. The story has been updated.