Trump recently called Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), a gubernatorial candidate in Florida, a “thief,” and declared that Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the state House in Georgia and the Democratic candidate for governor there, was “not qualified” for the job. A feature of his campaign rallies ahead of Tuesday’s elections was mocking Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a black lawmaker who has been highly critical of him, and calling her a “low-IQ person.”
Trump’s supporters say he fights all opponents with equal gusto, and he has gone after other reporters in an escalation of his war against the media since emerging from the bruising midterm elections — most notably stripping the White House pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta.
But the president’s rhetoric toward prominent African Americans is being singled out as far more offensive.
“His supporters are right, he does attack everyone. That’s clearly true,” said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis who writes frequently about race and gender. “But there’s also a clear commonality in the attacks he levels against people of color and black professionals. These are straight out of historic playbooks about black workers and professionals in particular — not being qualified, not being intelligent or having what it takes to succeed in a predominantly white environment.”
The latest example came Friday when the president stopped on the South Lawn of the White House on his way to Marine One to field shouted questions from the assembled media. He was asked several questions about the role of Matthew G. Whitaker, who he appointed as acting attorney general Wednesday, as well as about several other topics.
But when Abby Phillip, a CNN correspondent, asked whether Trump wanted Whitaker to rein in the special counsel’s ongoing Russia investigation, he snapped.
“What a stupid question that is,” Trump replied to Phillip, who is black. “What a stupid question,” he repeated, pointing his finger at her. “But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
The attack prompted an outpouring of support from fellow journalists, Democrats and others for Phillip, who previously covered the White House for The Washington Post. Many praised her for asking the most important and pertinent question of the day.
But Trump’s supporters reveled in the exchange, holding it up as an example of Trump showing his tormentors who is the boss.
“If you ask stupid questions, be prepared for @realDonaldTrump to call you out. #MAGA,” Harlan Z. Hill, a Republican operative and commentator, wrote on Twitter to his 171,000 followers, linking to a video clip of the exchange. The tweet had racked up more than 1,800 retweets and 5,000 “likes” within a few hours.
CNN’s communications department defended Phillip, saying that “she asked the most pertinent question of the day. The @realDonaldTrump’s personal insults are nothing new. And never surprising.”
Several White House officials did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
Trump has assembled a largely white roster of senior advisers. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is the only African American among the Cabinet and senior White House staff.
Since taking office, the president has repeatedly questioned the intelligence of black public figures. Perhaps most vicious have been his persistent attacks on Waters as “low IQ” and calling her the de facto leader of the Democratic Party.
But Trump has similarly called CNN’s Don Lemon the “dumbest man on television” and, after Lemon interviewed basketball star LeBron James, said in a tweet that the television anchor, who is black, “made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.” James had been critical of Trump, calling him a “bum” after the president revoked an invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to visit the White House amid reports that the team didn’t want to attend.
Trump also has called Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) “wacky” and disparaged his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “dog” after she wrote a tell-all book that accused him of using racist language.
“There is a pattern,” said April Ryan, who has covered the White House for America Urban Radio Networks since President Bill Clinton’s second term and now is also a CNN political analyst.
During a formal Trump news conference at the White House on Wednesday, Trump demanded that Ryan “sit down” after she repeatedly attempted to ask him a question about alleged voter suppression in the midterms. Trump was so steamed about it that he brought up the incident again Friday during his impromptu performance on the South Lawn, calling her a “loser” in a rambling answer to a question about Acosta.
In an interview, Ryan, who is black, noted that Trump often hails his accomplishments for African Americans, citing historically low unemployment rates during his rallies.
But “there’s a lot of shock-and-awe moments that make you turn head and say ‘Wow!’” she said. “Black people have been down this road before . . . name-calling, derogatory statement against those in this community who are held in high regard and hold positions to help. It’s not going unnoticed.”
Last year, Jemele Hill, a prominent sports journalist who is black, called Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter, prompting White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to call it a “fireable offense.” Hill was warned by her employer at the time, ESPN, and she called the remark inappropriate. She has since left ESPN.
More recently, Michael Cohen, who served for years as Trump’s personal lawyer before they severed ties after Cohen was indicted, said he had heard Trump use racist language in the past. Asked about the allegations at the White House on Wednesday, Trump flatly denied it. “I would never do that and I don’t use racist remarks,” he said.
Trump has sought to insulate himself against criticism over race by inviting prominent black figures, such as influential Christian pastors, to the White House to talk about such issues as criminal justice reform. Several weeks ago, he met with Kanye West, who was a vocal Trump supporter, in the Oval Office, although West later sought to distance himself from the White House.
During the news conference Wednesday, Trump sought to turn the tables on his questioners after Yamiche Alcindor, a White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour who is black, asked if he had emboldened white nationalists on the campaign trail with his rhetoric.
“I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question,” Trump said, asserting that he has the highest job approval ratings of his presidency among African Americans. He appears to be basing that on a pair of dubious polls from conservative-leaning outlets, whose findings have conflicted with other polls. Trump twice more called Alcindor’s question “racist.”
On Friday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) called Alcindor, Ryan and Phillip three of the best White House reporters and, in a tweet, said that “dismissing them or their questions as dumb, racist or stupid says more about @realDonaldTrump and his #dogwhistle racism than it does about these fine women.”
Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of the African American studies department at Princeton University, said Trump’s language was not a dog whistle because “it is not subtle.” He compared Trump’s attacks on the intelligence of black public figures to “The Bell Curve,” a widely disparaged 1994 book that connected intelligence to race.
“He does it over and over again,” Glaude said. “It’s important for us not just to reduce it to Trump just being transactional and understand this as a central part of who he is.”