JUNE 12, 2020
It’s another Charlottesville moment for some aides inside the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump’s handling of the nationwide anti-racism protests and the response to George Floyd’s killing is prompting a private reckoning, spurring sadness or soul-searching among some people of color who continue to serve in the administration after three and a half years, say several current and former aides.
These Republican aides — people of color appointed by the Trump team — say they are mystified as to why the president can so forcefully call for law and order amid ongoing protests, yet he cannot speak with the same conviction about racism in America, or offer words to soothe a divided and scared nation as it faces social unrest alongside a pandemic and an economic downturn.
“They had a huge opportunity, and they botched it,” said one senior administration official, among several people of color who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid putting their jobs at risk. “They could have gotten out ahead of it by having the president say something or go to Minnesota, where he’s been many times. I don’t know what led to the botching. Maybe he needs more advisers who have a better sense of what is going on in the real world.”
More than two weeks since George Floyd’s death, Trump has not given a major address on race, unity or race relations in the U.S. — even as some aides and advisers have urged him to do so. Instead, the president has vacillated between playing up his support and credentials with law enforcement, ramping up his own reelection campaign and trying to appease black voters with strange tributes to Floyd. He’s plotting his own executive action on the issue while Congress weighs larger moves.
Trump’s own advisers keep offering different advice on the best way he can help the nation move forward, while the president relies on his own instincts to guide him as he usually does — leaving people of color and their allies feeling largely unheard.
For many White House aides, Trump’s handling of these protests takes them back to another pivotal moment in his presidency: His response to the August 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Va. Trump at the time would not quickly condemn white supremacists after the murder of a young woman by a man who drove through a crowd. After 48 hours, Trump delivered a line that continues to haunt his presidency: “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Both then and now, Trump aides wrestled with their boss’ equivocation.
“Trump is not sharing any sense of empathy at all, because that is not who he is. You cannot ask him to magically turn it, on because it is not there,” said one former senior administration official and person of color.
“America, in 2016, elected a barroom brawler. Does America need in its president what it needed in 2016? Times have changed,” the same former official added. “My vote is open. I am a Republican and I worked in this administration, but who I vote for in November will depend on what America needs in five months. If the country is still burning like this, it will be an issue.”
To make up for Trump’s relatively muted response to the anti-racism protests, administration aides are finalizing an executive order on police reform. Trump previewed it at an event in Texas on Thursday when he said the order would encourage police departments to meet the same standards for use of force.
“You probably always could have done better with the benefit of hindsight, but I just don’t get involved in that sort of Monday morning quarterbacking,” said Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of Cincinnati, former Ohio Secretary of State and a longtime conservative leader and Trump supporter. “I look at what the playbook is going forward.”
Blackwell cited Trump’s offer of support to governors and mayors as one example of his handling of protests over the last few weeks, as well as the work his aides have done with House and Senate leadership to develop policy ideas for police reform.
“The president’s style is very East Coast, New Yorkish. He sees chaos and disruption and looters, and his instinct is to try to fix it,” Blackwell added. “He corralled that instinct and he understood that he would be at the ready if governors or mayors thought that federal involvement was needed. To me, that was responsible.”
At the same time, Trump, his top aides and his campaign have made statements or planned events that struck critics as tone-deaf and racially insensitive.
The president’s first rally in roughly three months will fall on June 19 in Tulsa, Okla. That coincides with Juneteenth — a holiday marking the end of slavery in the U.S. — in a city that featured one of America’s worst incidences of racial violence in 1921, when a white mob attacked and killed black residents and burned black-owned businesses and homes.
On Thursday, the Trump campaign started selling a baby outfit that co-opted the design of the Black Lives Matter slogan and instead said: “Baby Lives Matter.”
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow also said this week he did not believe there was systemic racism in the U.S. — going even further than Trump and many of his top officials, who say there’s no systemic racism in U.S. law enforcement.
“Our police have been letting us live in peace,” Trump said this week. “We want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there. And sometimes you’ll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently. But 99 — I say 99.9, but let’s go with 99 percent of them — are great, great people. And they’ve done jobs that are record setting. Record-setting.”
Privately, some people of color in the administration groaned at these moves while trying to stay focused on their own jobs.
The White House, in a statement, defended the president’s record and said he has expressed support for the anti-racism protesters during his speeches at the SpaceX launch and in the Rose Garden.
“President Trump’s record as a private citizen and as president has been one of fighting for inclusion and advocating for the equal treatment of all,” deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said. “At every challenge and tragedy, this President has provided hope and optimism and brought people together for bold solutions, and he’s doing so again following the horrible, senseless death of George Floyd.”
The president’s approach to the moment — veering between expressing sympathy for George Floyd’s death, taking a hardline stance against protests and then trying to find policy solutions on the fly — does not surprise current and former officials.
“Much of what you see with the president is him trying to figure out where is his voice on this, and how can he differentiate himself from the violence with the protesters,” said another former senior administration official and person of color.
But that motivation, the same official said, got lost in translation and instead made the president come off across as insensitive even if the official still plans to support Trump in 2020.
“My philosophy still comes down on the Republican side and its policies rather than the leader,” the former official added. “Quite frankly, I do not know if [Joe] Biden processes things any differently.”
Other current nonwhite administration officials say they are trying to do their jobs amid the turmoil.
“I just kind of keep to myself,” said one African American official inside the administration. “I don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” the official said when asked about Trump’s tweets. “It doesn’t have an impact on what I do day to day.”
White House aides argue the president does care deeply about the African American community, citing as evidence his work on criminal justice reform, funding for historically black colleges and the creation of Opportunity Zones as evidence. Aides also felt Trump expressed great empathy about Floyd’s death during a Florida speech at the SpaceX launch, and they were disappointed it did not receive more attention.
“It’s great to see everybody wanting to have this open and honest conversation and dialogue. There’s soul searching going on, on the issue of race, and so I hope the White House leads on it,” said another person of color in the administration. “The response has been fine, but I don’t know who is actually doing what on any of these issues.”
For Trump supporters like Pastor Darrell Scott — who went to the White House this week to meet with the president and other African American leaders — the president never gets credit for what he does. Scott said the president reacted quickly to Floyd’s death, urging the Department of Justice and FBI to expedite its investigations into the killing.
“This president is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t,” said Scott, who serves on the advisory board of Black Voices for Trump. “But people did not have a problem with the white congressmen dressed in Kente cloth. That was the ultimate pander.”
“If Donald Trump had come out with a Kente cloth and knelt for eight minutes, they would have nailed him to the cross if he had done that,” Scott said.