As President Donald Trump considers potential actions to take in the wake of protests demanding policing reforms and racial equality, the White House inner circle counseling him is exceedingly white and includes just one black Cabinet member and one black domestic policy adviser.
The Trump White House has long lacked diversity, but the issue has become even more obvious this year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in police custody – just the latest such tragedy involving an unarmed black man – and in the midst of a pandemic taht has disproportionately affected African Americans.
While the President has said he sympathizes with peaceful protesters marching after Floyd’s death, he has a history of stoking racial animus.
He won’t apologize for taking out ads in the 1980s calling for the return of the death penalty aimed at five teenagers of color, wrongly accused of raping a jogger and pressured into giving false confessions, known as the Central Park Five. Last year, he implied in the series of racist tweets that four congresswomen of color weren’t born in America and sarcastically suggested “they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” And he defended the protesters opposed to the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying the group, which contained white nationalists, included some “fine people.”
Some of Trump’s aides, in an attempt to inspire empathy in the President, have relayed to him their own experiences with racism or passed along accounts from friends. Trump spoke by phone with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, but the housing chief did not join Trump on his walk after Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church, nor did any other African American advisers.
It was the latest in a long string of White House photo-ops that have featured only white faces – an illustration of an administration where the vast majority of senior advisers are white and little attention is paid to diversifying staff.
Trump, who has boasted that he earned more black vote in 2016 than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did in 2012, has largely maintained that his role in empowering the African American community has been through criminal justice reform and economic policy.
Specifically, Trump has brought up his administration’s efforts to establish opportunity zones for investment into poorer communities, declining jobs numbers across racial groups and signing a criminal justice reform bill into law – a measure the President, who ran on a tough on crime platform, almost didn’t sign, in part, over concerns about the negative ramifications it could have for his political career.
But in instances where race relations enter the public square – such as when NFL players took a knee a games to protest police violence, during the Charlottesville protests and amid demonstrations after Floyd’s death – the President has generally sided against demonstrators advocating against racially motivated injustices and attitudes. In the case of the Floyd-inspired protests, Trump has said he’s an “ally to all peaceful protesters,” but asserted that “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa” and “terrorists” were also involved in the destruction of communities where demonstrations were taking place.
That’s not to say there aren’t other black White House staffers involved in crafting the White House’s message and policies. The Cabinet includes Carson and one of the President’s domestic policy advisers is Ja’Ron Smith. The White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities is led and staffed by African Americans. And members of his coalition of black supporters, Black Voices for Trump, have frequently been seen at the White House. In Congress, Trump has frequently relied on the GOP’s sole black senator, Tim Scott, to take charge on specific issues the administration perceives as largely affecting people of color.
But those nearest to the President’s ear with influence within the West Wing and those serving as the public representatives of his policies – his Cabinet, his senior policy advisers, and his lawyers – are overwhelmingly white.
And several of them – including Attorney General Bill Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow – have said in recent days that they don’t believe systemic racism is an issue within US law enforcement agencies.
When the White House has publicly brought voices into the fold recently for conversations about the relationship between African Americans and the police, the voice the President and Vice President Mike Pence have heard from have largely been political allies, religious leaders and law enforcement representatives. And based on what’s been disclosed to the media, there have not been representatives of civil rights groups, activist groups or representatives from Minnesota, where Floyd died.
Trump met with a group of black supporters on Wednesday, made up of conservative media figures, Smith and Carson, in what the White House billed as “a roundtable discussion with state, federal and local law enforcement officials on police and community relations.”
But in front of the press, the President did not discuss Floyd’s death and, instead, focused on relaying his perceived victories for the African American community, namely, criminal justice reform, opportunity zones and the state of the economy.
The lack of diversity has been apparent across seniority levels of the White House, and it’s been something senior staff have said they’ve attempted to address.
The White House was criticized in 2018 when a picture of the President and that year’s class of interns was lacked diversity.
Then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that year that the White House would try to diversify its staff, but declined to say how many African Americans were working at the White House.
“Certainly, as I addressed yesterday, we value diversity not just at the White House but in the entire administration. We are going to continue to try to diversify this staff. We have a large number of diverse staffers from various backgrounds … race, religion, gender,” Sanders said at the time.
However, it’s not clear what exactly Sanders or the White House did to institute more diversity efforts.
The White House also garnered criticism for initially staffing the coronavirus task force exclusively with white men. Carson and US Surgeon General Jerome Adams were added onto the task force later, and the President brought their voices to the forefront when racial disparities in the health outcomes of coronavirus patients emerged.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.