Republican front-runner Donald Trump often boasts about his relationship with “the blacks,” and he planned to provide proof of their support at a Monday news conference with more than 100 African American religious leaders who want him to be president.
But it never happened.
Instead, Trump met privately with dozens of pastors for two hours Monday at Trump Tower in Manhattan, answering their questions and seeking their support. Afterward, the candidate declared the meeting a success and told reporters he saw “love in that room” — but there was no formal announcement of endorsements.
Some of the attendees also called the meeting a success in statements to the media. But the pastors and religious activists continued to be criticized on social media for associating with Trump, who has made disparaging remarks about Latino immigrants, remained open to the idea of creating a database of Muslims living in the United States and seemed to condone the roughing-up of an African American protester at a recent campaign rally.
The episode with black clergy began the day before Thanksgiving, when Trump’s campaign announced it would host a news conference featuring “a coalition of 100 African American Evangelical pastors and religious leaders who will endorse the GOP front-runner after a private meeting.” A news release promised television-quality lighting.
But over the weekend, some of the pastors whose names had been used in promoting the meeting said they did not plan to attend, let alone endorse Trump. By Sunday afternoon, the campaign quietly canceled the public portion of the Monday event. In an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” a few hours before the meeting, Trump suggested that the religious leaders changed their minds under pressure from “Black Lives Matter folks.”
“I think what happened, probably: It gets publicity — unfortunately, as everything I do gets publicity — and probably some of the Black Lives Matter folks called them up and said, ‘You shouldn’t be meeting with Trump because he believes that all lives matter,’” Trump said. “I believe black lives do matter, but I believe all lives matter very strongly.”
The most notable criticism, however, was led by others from the African American religious community. More than 100 black ministers, theologians and religious activists wrote in an open letter posted Friday on Ebony.com that they were “deeply confounded” that their colleagues would meet with a candidate who “routinely uses overtly divisive and racist language on the campaign trail.” The letter also states that Trump’s “politics are so clearly anti-Black.”
The Rev. Darrell C. Scott of the Ohio-based New Spirit Revival Center, a Trump supporter who organized Monday’s meeting, argued that there was no harm in sitting down and talking to the candidate.
But in an interview Monday, the Rev. Jamal Bryant of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore criticized both Trump and many of the attendees for dismissing the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. He cited incendiary comments about “our Latino brothers and sisters, how he has misogynistically dealt with women . . . and making a mockery of the physically challenged is not reflective of what we stand for in the ministry.”
Bryant delivered the eulogy for Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in April as a result of a severe spinal cord injury he suffered while in police custody. He also walked the streets and urged calm after Gray’s death set off several days of protests and rioting in Baltimore. Jury selection began Monday in the trial of one of six officers charged in Gray’s death.
The Baltimore pastor said he does not think any religious leaders who took part in the meeting “have been socially active or involved in the last year in issues of injustice. He has gotten preachers who are primarily from the sidelines.”
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month, 73 percent of black respondents have an unfavorable view of Trump, 64 percent strongly unfavorable. Among Hispanics 80 percent have an unfavorable view of Trump, 67 percent strong. Fifty-one percent of whites viewed Trump unfavorably.
Pastor Mark Burns and his wife, Tamara, speaking on MSNBC, defended their participation in the meeting. “I’m not a sucker, I’m not Uncle Tom . . . nobody’s been paid,” said Burns, who owns the NOW Network, a Christian broadcasting company.
He said the discussion included the incident at Trump’s rally in Birmingham, Ala., last month in which a protester who shouted “black lives matter” was punched and kicked by some in the crowd. Trump thundered from the stage, “Get him the hell out of here.”
Burns said Trump “made it clear to all of us that he had no idea it was a Black Lives Matter [protester] . . . or a black person period.”
But the day after the incident, when Mercutio Southall Jr., a black man, had been identified as the protester, Trump told Fox News: “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing. I have a lot of fans, and they were not happy about it. And this was a very obnoxious guy who was a troublemaker who was looking to make trouble.”
Burns also told MSNBC that during Monday’s meeting Trump received “many, many endorsements” from attendees. “There were endorsement cards handed out and Mr. Trump was extremely thankful for these endorsement cards signed by pastors from all over the country.” Burns said he didn’t have an exact number.
After the meeting, Trump answered a few questions from reporters waiting downstairs at Trump Tower, with Scott standing by his side.
“We have many, many endorsements that came out of the meeting,” Trump said, according to the Associated Press. But he didn’t have an exact number.
“Some committed. I don’t know the number,” Scott said, according to the Associated Press. “The rest are praying about it.”