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Trump struggles to convince black leaders his administration will respond to racial inequities on coronavirus

President Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 10, 2020, in Washington. Seated from left, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn. (Associated Press/Evan Vucci)

Already the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, Anthony S. Fauci assumed another role this week, reaching out to reassure black congressional leaders that the Trump administration is pursuing strategies to mitigate the outsize impact of the disease on minority communities.

In an hour-long conference call with the Congressional Black Caucus, Fauci heard from members who emphasized the need to surge federal testing resources and medical gear to black communities, which data have shown are at a higher risk of being infected by and dying of the novel coronavirus.

Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said she quoted Fauci’s own words, from an interview with MSNBC host Al Sharpton on Sunday, that the administration has “got to bring the resources where the risk and vulnerability is.”

Fauci, she said, pledged to take the group’s recommendations back to the task force. “It was a positive and productive call,” Bass said. But she added that the caucus is “worried about” Fauci given that President Trump has expressed frustration with the doctor for contradicting him at times on public health recommendations.

“He’s trying to do the work of the American people and do it in the best way he can,” Bass said, “but that could mean he ends up getting fired.”

Fauci’s role highlights the tenuous state of affairs between a president who has exploited racial divisions, at times employing racially offensive language, and the black lawmakers who represent communities with large numbers of minorities. Trump has just one black member in his Cabinet or West Wing senior staff — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — and black leaders expressed doubts over the administration’s ability to help disseminate crucial public health information to minority communities and its willingness to provide the federal resources necessary to combat the disease.

Though Congressional Black Caucus members said they came away confident that Fauci appreciated the urgency of the threat to black communities, they were skeptical of his chances of convincing Trump to deliver on their prescriptions. In addition to increased levels of testing and medical supplies, the caucus is asking for more rapid-response tests and antibody testing in black communities, as well as the release of federal data, broken down by race and ethnicity, of infections, deaths, hospitalizations and recovery rates.

The call with Fauci “was reminiscent of the press briefings where he demonstrates not just knowledge of the issues but also expressed commitment to try to address them,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in an interview. “The question is whether or not the administration will commit itself to do anything to address the problem. I don’t think the will is there to do it.”

White House aides disputed that view, emphasizing that Trump has had private conversations with black leaders, including Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, while Vice President Pence convened a conference call with dozens of black civic organizations last week. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe outreach to minority leaders.

Although Trump this week retweeted a social media message that included the hashtag #FireFauci, the president told reporters he has no plans to dismiss him from the task force.

The conversations came amid media reports, based on state and municipal data, that African Americans and Latinos are being infected at higher rates than whites. A Washington Post analysis this month of available data and census demographics shows that counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.

Experts have cited socioeconomic factors, including that the virus is more likely to infect those who are unable to work from home as well as those who have underlying health conditions and lack adequate health-care options.

At a press briefing last week, Trump expressed alarm at the “problem of increased impacts — this is a real problem, and it’s showing up very strongly in our data — on the African American community. And we’re doing everything in our power to address this challenge — it’s a tremendous challenge; it’s terrible — and provide support to African American citizens.”

The president and his aides, including Pence and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, have pledged to make public federal data on the racial breakdown of those who have been infected — but promises that such data would be released within a few days have not produced results. Congressional Democrats introduced legislation this week that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to collect that data and provide a report to Congress.

White House aides said federal resources are being distributed to states in consultation with governors, who are basing their requests on data showing where the virus is spreading. Administration officials, through a variety of diverse media outlets, have sought to emphasize the need for minority communities and young people to heed the social distancing guidelines.

Aiming to reach a broader audience, Fauci has done interviews with Showtime’s “Desus & Mero,” NBA star Stephen Curry’s Instagram channel and the “Breakfast Club” radio program, and he is slated to appear on movie star Will Smith’s new Snapchat show. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, who is black, has appeared on BET.

The Rev. Darrell Scott and Kareem Lanier, prominent African American supporters of Trump who oversee an urban redevelopment organization, said they have had discussions with federal and state officials, along with athletes, entertainers and civic leaders, about forming an outside task force that would help the Trump administration examine and respond to the health and economic impacts of the virus on black communities.

They pointed to Trump’s work on criminal justice reform, economic opportunity zones and funding for historically black colleges and universities as evidence of his commitment to African American communities.

“We need to make sure we give money and testing to distressed communities,” Lanier said. “We also need to make sure we have the right campaign by way of information. . . . Because of a long history of abuse by the government in terms of testing and vaccines, there’s a big distrust there.”

But critics said the Trump White House does not have adequate messengers, especially given the outrage sparked by the president’s rhetorical attacks on prominent black leaders, including former president Barack Obama and the late Democratic congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore.

“This is the first president I have seen, since I started going to the White House when [Ronald] Reagan was president, who doesn’t have a key black aide in the White House,” Sharpton said in an interview.

Last month, when Sharpton was warning about the risks of the coronavirus to the incarcerated and homeless populations, he got a surprise phone call from Trump.

“He said he would not commit to anything but that he would note it,” Sharpton said. “It is a good sign, compared to his past actions, that he acknowledged the racial imbalance. But it was a one-day mention — with no announced programs, no announced commitment, no priority from the White House.”

Adams, 45, who reports to the assistant secretary of HHS, made a personal plea at a White House briefing last week, citing his own battles with asthma to emphasize the importance of taking precautions against the coronavirus. But in doing so he drew a backlash on social media when he employed language that some found offensive.

“We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela,” Adams said, using the Spanish word for grandmother. “Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your big mama. Do it for your pop-pop. We need you to understand — especially in communities of color — we need you to step up and help stop the spread.”

Critics faulted Adams for appearing to blame African Americans and Latinos for being lax in their personal conduct, rather than highlighting the socioeconomic inequities that make those communities more vulnerable. Adams, who said he has a Puerto Rican brother-in-law, explained that he was using “language that is used in my family.”

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, who has spoken weekly with Adams, said he appreciated the surgeon general’s efforts to keep civic leaders informed. But Johnson added that he was frustrated that Trump has sought to politicize the crisis by overriding the medical experts and offering conflicting public guidance.

“The problem with this administration is not only does it lack diversity, it lacks the ability to empathize with other people,” Johnson said. “Because of the egomaniac in the White House, much of the administration’s posture and policy is more self-indulgent than it is providing leadership for the American people. And then you compound that with a complete blind spot on questions of race, which is the nicest way to put it.”

Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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