No one expected President Donald Trump and Congress’ black lawmakers, most of whom are Democrats, to become fast friends. But it turns out they’re hardly even speaking.
“We’re off to a horrible start,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and the Congressional Black Caucus chairman.
“I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything, to this point, that would suggest outreach,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a former chairman of the caucus.
The White House wouldn’t comment on the status of its efforts to engage the Congressional Black Caucus. In a news briefing last month, spokesman Sean Spicer said a plan was in the works.
“He’s going to start with the leadership. He’s going have a great conversation with them,” Spicer said. “But then I think you’re going to see a variety of meetings: The Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, small groups of leaders.”
The Congressional Black Caucus has yet to receive a formal invitation to meet with Trump, Richmond said, but he added that “the two staffs are in communication.”
Richmond and Cleaver said that to their knowledge no Democratic members had been invited to Trump’s Black History Month White House event, which Richmond described as a roomful “of close Trump allies.” Several of the attendees were African-Americans who’d supported Trump’s campaign or administration House staffers.
Forty-eight of the 49 Congressional Black Caucus members are Democrats. Only 8 percent of African-Americans voted for Trump.
Trump further exacerbated the tension before he took office last month, lashing out on Twitter at civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., for questioning the legitimacy of the new president’s election. Many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Lewis, skipped Trump’s inauguration.
Trump has nominated only one African-American to a Cabinet post, Ben Carson for housing and urban development secretary. Black lawmakers have been sharply critical of other appointments, particularly Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general and conservative media firebrand Steve Bannon as the White House chief strategist.
One House of Representatives member, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, has already suggested that Trump might be eventually impeached over Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
As Congressional Black Caucus members headed to Baltimore for a three-day retreat with their Democratic colleagues, there weren’t a lot of warm feelings about outreach efforts from the new White House.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, another former chair of the caucus, said no one from the administration had even engaged black lawmakers on something they might agree on: Expanded support for historically black colleges and universities.
Trump is reportedly considering issuing an executive order that would benefit the 100-plus colleges and universities that were established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African-Americans, who were barred from attending majority-white schools in the pre-civil-rights era.
“Right now he’s talking about doing something with HBCUs. Do you think he’d talk to members of the black caucus?” Fudge said. “There’s a place where we really could work together. It would be nice to be engaged in that process.”
The tension between black lawmakers and Trump goes back to his false claim that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Todd Shaw, the interim chairman of the department of political science at the University of South Carolina, said black lawmakers took offense at Trump questioning the legitimacy of the country’s first African-American president.
“They had a linked fate with Obama,” Shaw said. “If you treat the first African-American president this way, how high a regard can you have for members of the black caucus?”
To be sure, black lawmakers had high expectations for Obama, and there were times when they didn’t think he paid enough attention to improving educational and economic opportunities for African-Americans. Fudge even criticized Obama for not initially having enough new black appointees to his Cabinet at the beginning of his second term.
Now, Shaw said, many Congressional Black Caucus members may find themselves asking whether constructive engagement with the Trump White House is even possible.
“Trump is starting pretty much at the bottom,” Shaw said. “He has a lot to do to prove that various African-American leaders are not wasting their time to sit down at the table with them.”
On top of the confrontation over Lewis, the president’s claim that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton because millions of people voted illegally has incensed Congressional Black Caucus members.
Trump has offered no evidence to support the claim, and many Democratic lawmakers say voter suppression is a far bigger problem than voter fraud.
“We work in a business where you can’t be thin-skinned,” Fudge said. “You have to find a way to put your little personal hurt feelings aside and move forward, especially if you’re the president of the most powerful country in the world.”
Richmond said Trump needed to realize that the campaign was over and it was his job to govern all the people.
“We’ve accepted that he’s the president,” Richmond said. “He needs to accept that he’s the president now, and let’s move with the role of governing responsibly and not just campaigning.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this story.