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Donald Trump has seized — and maintained — the political spotlight, in part by making coarse remarks about minority groups and capitalizing on nativist fears among his core supporters. He’s called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, repeated stereotypes about Jews and money, and, this week, in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, Trump ignited a national firestorm by calling for Muslims to be banned from entering the country. The more he’s alienated American ethnic groups and scandalized the political establishment, the more, it seems, the brash billionaire has pumped up his base.
But in a strange twist, Trump, the unabashedly politically incorrect Republican frontrunner, recently made an effort to be more sensitive about one of the country’s key minority constituencies.
This shift came after Trump met with a group that included prominent African-American pastors at his eponymous skyscraper headquarters in Manhattan on Nov. 30. Three people who attended the meeting told Yahoo that Trump was told to change the way he speaks about African-Americans, a group he has regularly referred to as “the blacks.” Members of the group left Trump Tower with the impression he would choose his words more carefully going forward.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media after meeting with a group of black pastors at his office in Manhattan. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
“To be honest, we informed him that he comes across as insensitive sometimes,” recounted Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who helped organize Trump’s meeting with the clergy. “He said, ‘OK.’ … He nodded his head. … We also told him that there are politically correct and politically incorrect terms that are being in use.”
Scott said Trump took the pastors’ words to heart. After the meeting, Trump flew down to Macon, Ga., for a rally where his speech reflected the new tone: “You know, we had a meeting today that was amazing,” Trump told his faithful. “We had the African-American pastors — so many came up to Trump Tower — it was like one of the most inspiring meetings.”
This rare concession from the infamously blunt billionaire and his powwow with the pastors are part of what his allies describe as an ambitious effort to win over the majority of black voters.
Like so many claims made through the course of Trump’s presidential campaign, his boasts about his ability to appeal to the African-American electorate seem grandiose and even a bit detached from reality. Yet in an election cycle where it’s been foolish to dismiss or underestimate Trump, Yahoo News is taking a closer look at his African-American outreach strategy and the unusual collection of allies helping him curry favor with that community. They include a Jewish Democrat, a familiar face from the 2012 campaign who had a particular affinity for the number nine, and a Harlem minister who has focused on battling “homo demons” and exposing President Obama as a Kenyan-born “Muslim.”
People in Trump’s orbit stress that all final decisions come from the man himself. But Michael Cohen, a longtime member of Trump’s inner circle, is helping to lead the unusual outreach effort. Cohen, who is Trump’s lawyer and an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, is a rather unlikely fit for the role of campaign minority outreach consultant. Cohen has no official role on Trump’s campaign and isn’t being paid by it, which has led to questions about whether he’s legally permitted to do political work on behalf of his boss. He’s also a self-described registered Democrat with Long Island roots. Still, Cohen says he’s working to “coordinate” Trump’s work to woo the black community.
When asked how much of the African-American vote the campaign wants to win, Cohen had a perfectly Trumpian answer: All of it. “Our goal is 100 percent,” Cohen said before modifying himself. “Or to flip what has historically been the Democrats’ 93 percent. That’s Mr. Trump’s goal.”
According to Cohen, Trump needs to win black voters because other minority groups won’t support him: “The truth, yeah, I’m trying to coordinate it because I am mindful of the fact that, you know, there are coalitions and I’m talking about now like Hispanic coalitions that … will not support Trump,” Cohen explained. “And that’s OK because the ones that don’t like Trump aren’t even here legally and they can’t vote, so it doesn’t really matter, right? And I understand their point of view. They’re — they do not want to be asked to leave right? And go back where? Go back to their homes? You know they don’t want to. So I understand.”
After ruling out Latinos, Cohen said the campaign turned to the African-American community because Trump needs to go beyond his base. “You can’t win a general election if your mindset is on the Southern white Christian coalition. You need them, but you need the minority communities as well,” Cohen said.
Indeed, an advantage with minority voters has been a key element of the Democratic Party’s victories in the past two presidential elections. But Cohen said the Trump campaign has been developing a strategy to combat that demographic edge. Cohen cited Trump’s “four-step plan” for how he would “help the African-American community,” which the candidate presented at his meeting with the pastors.
“There are four things that are needed,” Cohen said. “First … you’ve got to bring back God into the neighborhood. No. 2, jobs. Three, tax incentives. You’ve got to create businesses in the neighborhood. And, four, education. And the education sort of mirrored, you know, with God because they say that the best education that you could ever get would be from your clergy.”
Even with a tailored pitch, Trump will be a tough sell for black voters. There is little data indicating he would perform any better with the African-American electorate than past Republican hopefuls. Trump has touted a SurveyUSA poll released in September that showed him winning 25 percent of the black vote in a hypothetical general election matchup against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. That would be the best showing with African-American voters any Republican has managed since President Ronald Reagan was elected with the support of 14 percent of the black community in 1980. However, as of now, the SurveyUSA poll is an outlier. Other polls have shown Trump with much lower levels of support in the black community.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist who is the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and runs the Crystal Ball, a site that maintains a detailed analysis of the 2016 field, told Yahoo News there’s “not a chance” Trump will do any better in the black community than prior GOP hopefuls. “If he is the nominee, he’ll get what Republicans usually get, which is somewhere between 4 percent and 10 percent,” Sabato said.
“This is a very partisan era and African Americans are heavily concentrated in the 17 percent of the population that says they’re strong Democrats,” Sabato reasons. “A strong Democrat almost never defects for any reason and, in the Obama era, that’s even more true. So, no, that will be the last ethnic or demographic group that Republicans will crack — any Republican and Trump,” Sabato trailed off with an audible chuckle. “No. Trump has no special appeal beyond other Republicans.”
In fact, Trump actually faces unique obstacles as he courts black voters. The mogul has a long history of using racially charged rhetoric and his real estate company was sued for allegedly discriminating against black renters in the 1970’s. His stance on Muslims, which has drawn praise from white supremacists, could also prove problematic, since over 25 percent of American Muslims are black.
Trump speaks during the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP)
In what appears to be part of an emerging strategy, the campaign has deployed African-American supporters as surrogates to defend Trump against growing accusations of racism. When Yahoo News asked Cohen about the growing outrage over Trump’s Muslim policy, he directed us to Mark Burns, one of the black pastors who are backing Trump. Burns, a South Carolina televangelist who attended the Trump Tower meeting, has also defended the plan on cable news. In his conversation with Yahoo, Burns described it as a “commonsense move.” Though Burns acknowledged some might see the policy “as a direct attack on black America,” he argued it is only focused on foreign threats.
“This, by any means, is not an attack on the Islamic faith, especially the Muslim-Americans or the black Muslim-Americans here in the United States of America. This is simply an opportunity, a chance to weed out those who are abroad, who are immigrants,” Burns said. “Not Muslim-Americans, but immigrants that have infiltrated using the Islamic faith to infiltrate the United States of America and to … cause damage, you know, using the Sharia law here in America, create terrorism.”
Burns said that, “without question,” having black allies appear with Trump helps counter the charges of racism. He also pointed out that large numbers of minorities work for Trump.
“It is ignorant for people, whether you’re black, whether you’re white, whether you’re Hispanic, whether you’re Asian or Indian, to believe this person is a racist,” Burns said of Trump.
Trump has been directly asked whether he holds discriminatory views in his meetings with black allies, including the Nov. 30 conversation with African-American pastors. Scott, the Ohio pastor who helped organize the recent gathering at Trump Tower, admitted the candidate is seen as a “racist” in the African-American community. Scott first met Trump at an earlier meeting in 2011. At the time, the businessman-cum-reality TV star was flirting with entering the next year’s presidential election. Scott said he initially had a “prejudicial opinion of Donald Trump.”
“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m probably the least racist person you ever wanted to know.’ And then, what he didn’t do, which I liked, was he didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince me that he was not a racist,” Scott recounted, later adding, “It seemed like a non-issue to him.”
After that first encounter with Trump and his team, Scott said he stayed in touch with Cohen through frequent phone calls. As the current presidential campaign heated up, Scott said he got the idea to bring a group of African-American pastors to meet Trump in order to fix what he described as “a disconnect” between Trump and the black community. He invited many of the attendees who came to the Nov. 30 meeting. Others were brought into Trump’s orbit through Cohen.
The meeting was not an auspicious start to the Trump outreach effort. It quickly descended into a series of internecine disputes among the pastors. Still, it offers a window into the Trump team’s unorthodox minority outreach strategy.
The campaign initially announced the gathering five days beforehand with a press release that promised Trump would be “joined by a coalition of 100 African-American evangelical pastors and religious leaders” who would “endorse” him on Nov. 30. This prompted a torrent of criticism, including an open letter from “more than 100 black religious leaders and scholars” that was published by Ebony magazine three days before the meeting was scheduled to take place.
The letter attacked Trump’s overall tone and cited two particular instances of what it described as “Trump’s racially inaccurate, insensitive and incendiary rhetoric.” It castigated Trump for saying some of his supporters were justified in roughing up a Black Lives Matter protester who interrupted a campaign rally. The letter also took Trump to task for “tweeting inaccurate statistics about crime prevalence rates in black communities — insinuating that black people are more violent than other groups.”
Amid the hubbub, several pastors who had been associated with the gathering came forward and declared they were not Trump supporters. Trump’s campaign also cancelled a press conference that was planned for after the event.
The gathering, which took place in a conference room at Trump Tower, began with speeches from Cohen and Scott. Cohen read the prepared version of his remarks to Yahoo News.
“Every day I have the distinct honor and privilege of putting on my suit to come to work for Donald Trump. To those of us who truly know him, Mr. Trump is more than our boss. He’s our sage, our leader, our mentor, our adviser, and a friend,” Cohen said. “It is for this reason that many of us take the media’s ravenous bias against Mr. Trump so personally. It is as if they are attacking us.”
Recalling his opening remarks, Scott said he touted Trump as a potential “agent of change” who is “not a perfect person.”
“Mr. Trump is politically incorrect at times, but that’s because he is not a career politician. … He’s flawed in areas just like everyone is, but … Mr. Trump has promised to defend our Christian liberties, strengthen our national morality, and restore the conservative values that make our nation great,” Scott said.
Scott, in his retelling to Yahoo News, went on to attack those who criticized the group for meeting with Trump as “agents of Satan.”
“We were encountering fierce opposition. … I know it’s from the enemy, from the devil, because all of our motives are pure,” Scott recalls saying. “We’re being called sellouts, Uncle Toms, coons, Stepin Fetchits — everything except children of God — n*****s, everything,” Scott said.
He ended on a defiant note.
“We’re not going to be bullied or pressured to ignore the leading of God’s spirit by agents of Satan,” Scott said.
Cohen said Scott also called for “a show of hands” and asked the people at the meeting whether they “really think” that Trump is “a racist.”
“No one raised their hand,” Cohen bragged.
What happened next is a matter of some disagreement, but it is clear that the gathering was not just a tribute to Trump.
All of the attendees who spoke to Yahoo News said the meeting lasted about two and a half hours. They also all agreed that about an hour of the discussion was dominated by comments made by Bishop Victor Couzens, an Ohio pastor. However, Scott and Cohen believe Couzens misrepresented the meeting in subsequent interviews.
“This was his 15 minutes of fame,” Scott said of Couzens.
Victor Couzens of the Inspirational Baptist Church arrives at Trump Tower in New York. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP)
While the three men disagree about exactly how many people attended the meeting and who spoke in what order, they all said Couzens demanded an apology from Trump, which led to a lengthy discussion of the candidate’s tone. Couzens recounted the face-off in an interview with Yahoo News. According to Couzens, he asked Trump to apologize for “disparaging things” he said during the campaign, including comments about the Black Lives Matter protester who interrupted his rally and the inaccurate statistic he tweeted about crime in the African-American community.
“You said you want to be a unifier, and you said that you want to restore dignity to people, and you started this meeting with a Christian tone,” Couzens said he told Trump. “You need to repent. You need to apologize to these people.”
Before Trump could respond to Couzens, a Harlem pastor named James Manning cut him off. Cohen, who said he was the only Trump staff member in the room at the meeting, put Yahoo News in touch with Manning to get the “true” story of the incident.
Manning said he is “enamored” with Trump and wants to start an organization for the campaign in Harlem. He also objects to the notion Trump should ever apologize for his views or “change his behavior.” Manning is certainly no stranger to political incorrectness. Over the years he has made headlines for large signs in front of his church, Atlah World Missionary Church. One declared “Jesus would stone homos.” Another described Obama as “a Taliban Muslim illegally elected president.”
Cohen told Yahoo he knows Manning, but said he was not sure whether Trump was aware of the pastor’s views.
“I don’t think he knows anything about Pastor Manning, so I wouldn’t be in a position to answer that question,” Cohen said.
Manning’s birther views make him an odd ambassador for Trump’s charm offensive in the black community. Obama is extremely popular among African-Americans, and the conspiracy theories about the president’s origins have been thoroughly debunked. However, Manning said it was Trump’s support for this fringe movement that “cemented” his admiration for the candidate.
“He was the biggest birther that we had. He had the biggest voice, the biggest bully pulpit,” Manning said.
Trump hasn’t discussed Obama’s birthplace during his current presidential campaign. But Manning is confident Trump hasn’t given up on the issue and is only lying low because he “has not forgotten the heat that he has taken.”
“Once Trump gets into — sits down in that Oval Office, there ain’t no telling what he will reveal about Obama,” Manning explained, adding, “I’m saying, well, let’s play the long game on this. Let’s all play the long game.”
Trump’s African-American outreach effort isn’t limited to private sit-downs with community leaders. He’s also having some of his black supporters appear at his rallies. After the meeting with the pastors, Trump flew down to his rally in Macon. Trump brought Bruce LeVell, who attended the meeting, onto his plane for the flight. LeVell owns a diamond business in the Atlanta area and was a local Republican Party official there. Trump also called LeVell onstage to speak at the Macon rally.
“You know, this is so impromptu. … I was in New York and I went up there, guys, on a serious note to just to defend a lot of the things you’ve been seeing in the news that were totally false. Donald Trump is not a racist, guys,” LeVell said as Trump beamed in the background.
Trump was introduced at the Macon event by another prominent African-American conservative — Herman Cain.
Cain, who was briefly the GOP frontrunner in the 2012 presidential primary and now hosts a radio show, said he hoped his presence onstage sends a powerful message that should help counter the impression Trump is racist.
“At least it says, hey, well, if Herman Cain is appearing at his rally, why? And it can’t be because Donald Trump is a racist.”
Though he said he will “probably” make more appearances with Trump, Cain isn’t ready to endorse just yet. He described Trump as one of his four “favorite” Republican presidential candidates along with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Cain also said he would serve as a running mate for Trump or any of these other three candidates if he is asked.
“I’m in,” Cain said.
Trump and his team may have boldly predicted that their message and allies can help them pull off an unprecedented political revolution in the black community and insulate them from steadily mounting charges of racism. But at least one person associated with the operation clearly has some questions about the soundness of the strategy.
Manning is ready to launch his “Harlem for Trump” effort, but he’s not entirely sure he should pull the trigger. He plans to “run it past Michael Cohen” first.
“I’ll tell you the truth, I’m such a lightning rod. You know, I got this thing where, you know, all the homosexual sodomites are after me. They all want to hang me, you know, and they all call me a hate preacher,” Manning said. “So I don’t want to get in the way of Donald Trump’s campaign by bogging him down with having to deal with me.”