Many African Americans are expressing outrage over a testy exchange between President Donald Trump and a veteran Black journalist, with many considering the incident to be the latest indication of his inability to relate to them.
Already skeptical of Trump, many Blacks said they were exasperated by the fact that, during his news conference on Feb. 16, the new president asked April Ryan, longtime White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, to help broker a meeting for him with Black lawmakers.
“Will you meet with the Congressional Black Caucus?” Ryan asked. Trump responded: “I would. You want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?”
The exchange set off a firestorm on social media as many Black people balked at Trump’s suggestion of an assumed relationship between Ryan and CBC members because they are of the same race.
Susan Rice, U.N. ambassador under the Obama administration, tweeted an article about the incident and called Trump’s remarks “notably offensive.”
“I’m also really pleased he didn’t ask her to sweep and mop in the room where the press conference was being held,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a former CBC chairman, quipped during an MSNBC interview on Friday.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed bafflement and dismay after hearing about Trump’s comment.
“As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, I believe we deserve more respect for the integrity of the institution and the work we are doing to help protect the interests of minorities and all Americans,” Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, said in a prepared statement. The president’s comments today during his lengthy press conference were once again a disruption to the true issues impacting our nation. This includes his lack of transparency and understanding the importance of working with the other two branches of government. … the president has continued to dismiss and belittle us when he has ignored our request to meet with him formally at the White House. We do not wish to be divisive but his actions are showing that he does not care to prioritize the needs and issues of what takes place in Black communities or work with those of us who have firsthand experience in addressing the issues that gravely impact minority communities.”
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina said there is “an element of disrespect” in Trump’s comment to Ryan, asking her whether she was friends with CBC members and could convene a get-together.
“He’s not going to ask any other reporter to do that for any other group, so why did he do that to her? I think that was pretty instructive to me,” said Clyburn, a veteran lawmaker and member of the House Democratic leadership.
When asked whether Trump was implying that all Black people know each other, Clyburn said, “I don’t know what his implications were but that’s my interpretation.”
Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio seemed equally offended.
“We have a rich history, we have some almost 50 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We’re not new. What a president should say is, yes, it’s already on my agenda to talk to them,” she said.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., insisted Trump’s remarks showed another abuse of protocol.
“Donald Trump knows how to call Cedric Richmond, our chair, and that is what he should do. And then we’ll [the CBC] sit together and see if it’s in our interest” to meet with Trump, he said.
The CBC noted over Twitter that the group sent Trump a letter in January outlining areas where they could work together, “but you never wrote us back. Sad!”
The chairman of the CBC, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., issued a statement saying it was remarkable that Trump had not responded to their letter.
“President Trump has been in office for almost a month and the Congressional Black Caucus – which at a historic 49 members is almost a fourth of the House Democratic Caucus and represents millions of African Americans – did not hear from the White House until we introduced ourselves on Twitter after the White House press conference today.”
Richmond issued another statement late Thursday saying the White House reached out to schedule a meeting with the 49-member organization and discussions were underway about a possible date.
Trump specifically mentioned a meeting with Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and said the lawmaker canceled because it would be bad for him politically.
“I have no idea why President Trump would make up a story about me like he did today,” Cummings said in response.
Adding to the ire: It was the second time in less than 30 days – and during Black History Month – that Trump said something that came across as indifferent toward Black people. The president was ridiculed Feb. 1 for praising abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, as someone “who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.”
After Thursday’s news conference, the CBC tweeted a copy of a letter, dated Jan. 19 and addressed to Trump, requesting a meeting. The caucus said although it got no response to that letter, Trump did reach out Thursday and that plans for a meeting are now in the works.
The White House declined to comment on Friday about Trump’s exchange with Ryan.
Trump used the moment to pander to his supporters, said Lehigh University professor James Peterson, and the irony is that the point of Ryan’s question – Trump’s plan for urban communities – got lost.
“His histrionics … obscured what was a very significant question in the first place,” Peterson said.
Trump’s comments came while the White House was in the midst of making overtures to Black constituencies. The same day that Trump sparred with reporters, Vice President Mike Pence joined with South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, one of three Blacks in the Senate, for a White House “listening session” with Black small business owners and community leaders. And the president is also expected to issue an executive order soon on support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Although Trump has said his policies will benefit African Americans, and predicted during his campaign that he would win the Black vote, his support from Black voters in November was about 8 percent.
Just before his Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump tangled on Twitter with civil rights icon and Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Civil rights groups, and several Blacks in Congress, were particularly opposed to Trump’s nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom they view as holding racist views, as attorney general. Sessions was confirmed.
Within days of taking office, Trump threatened on Twitter to “send in the feds” to deal with gun violence in Chicago – a nod to his “law and order” stance to fixing the country’s “inner cities” that chafed some Blacks during the campaign.
Thursday’s flap also put Ryan in the political spotlight for the second time in a week, as reports surfaced of her heated confrontation with Trump aide Omarosa Manigault in the White House press office.
In conflicting accounts, Ryan accused Manigault of physical and verbal intimidation, including a warning that the White House kept “dossiers” on Black journalists – something the White House denied. Ryan also said her friendship with Manigault became estranged after Manigault accused her of an improper relationship with Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Manigault denied the accusations.