‘They had a huge opportunity’: People of color on Trump’s team reckon with a backlash

“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.

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