After questioning the president’s “moral authority” in his response to a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Sen. Tim Scott thinks Donald Trump may now understand how he could have handled the episode differently.
“He shook his head and said, ‘yeah, I got it,’” Scott recalled after sitting with Trump in the Oval Office for 40 minutes on Wednesday.
The Senate’s only black Republican questioned Trump’s moral authority last month when the president said many sides were to blame for the violence at a white supremacist rally, including some of the people who showed up to protest hate groups.
On Wednesday, Scott said Trump mostly listened during their meeting. He said Trump “tried to explain what he was trying to convey” when he bemoaned violence on “many sides, many sides,” rather than pointedly condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who converged on the college town to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. A counter-protester died when a car plowed into a crowd and two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash as they aided in the response.
“He simply was trying to convey ... that there was an antagonist on the other side,” Scott, of South Carolina, said of Trump’s criticism of the counter-protesters.
“My response was, while that’s true – if you look at it from a sterile perspective, there was an antagonist on the other side – however, the real picture has nothing to do with who’s on the other side,” Scott continued. “It has to do with the affirmation of hate groups who over three centuries in this country’s history have made it their mission to create upheaval in minority communities as the reason for their existence.”
Scott cautioned that repairing the damage would take time.
“My comment on his compromised moral authority was based on America’s reaction” to Trump’s rhetoric after the Charlottesville violence, said Scott. “I think a restoration of moral authority will be based on America’s reaction and that will take time.”
After he meeting, when asked directly if the president had changed his mind about Charlottesville, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had already expressed appropirate outrage about racism.
"The president was clear in his initial statement, that he condemned hatred, bigotry, racism of all forms,” said Sanders, who attended the Oval Office meeting, at her daily press briefing. “He continues to stick to that message. He's been very consistent in that fact. He and the senator talked about that and discussed that, and agreed that that was the appropriate place to be."
If there was one concrete outcome from the meeting, it might have been Trump’s agreement to work with Scott to hire additional high-ranking African-Americans in the administration, but Sanders said they did not speak about specific candidates.
“There’s certainly conversations about adding additional personnel that can tap into the African-American community,” she stressed.
Scott said he emphasized to Trump the need to diversify his “echo chamber.” The senator pointed to his own successful efforts to fill his senior staff with men and women of color. One of Scott’s goals for meeting with Trump was also to share his personal narrative of growing up poor and black in a single-parent household in North Charleston, experiences a world away from Trump’s New York City upbringing.
Scott was not the only Republican who criticized Trump’s response to the Charlottesville violence. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also challenged the president to deliver a more decisive condemnation of the white supremacist instigators. Graham’s demand provoked a Trump Twitter response.
“Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists,” Trump tweeted. “Such a disgusting lie. He can’t forget about his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!”
Graham told McClatchy on Wednesday he had not spoken to Trump about this exchange but said he was glad Trump agreed to discuss the issue with Scott in a civil way.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., also said he was gratified Trump and Scott could sit down together.
“Maybe he’ll hear it better from Tim than he would from the Congressional Black Caucus,” Richmond said. “[Democrats] have not been shy about our disappointment in his words and how we think he has mischaracterized history and then conflated arguments about monuments and other stuff. Maybe Sen. Scott can make some more headway because he’s a Republican.”
Scott, whose response to Trump’s rhetoric around Charlottesville has resonated perhaps more strongly than that of any other elected official, said Wednesday he was ultimately less focused on re-litigating past comments than he was on “improving tomorrow.”
While he and Trump both said they looked forward to continuing a dialogue, Scott scoffed at the notion he might become “the guy who focuses on race as his career.
“My goal is to focus on those issues that move this country forward,” he went on. “One of the things that I was very clear to do was not to have a racial conversation with the president as if that somehow will solve problems or change minds.
“My goal was to have a conversation about fairness, access to opportunities and remedies that will help people who are impoverished today, people who feel hopeless today,” he continued. “That encompasses black folks and white folks.”
Accordingly, Scott said he took advantage of his audience with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, along with White House legislative affairs director Marc Short and his deputy, Mary Elizabeth Taylor, to pitch his “Opportunity Agenda,” a slate of bills aimed at improving access to education, work training and apprenticeships.
But his status as one of just three black Republicans currently serving in Congress has made it impossible for the public to ignore Scott’s meeting with Trump, a president who does not have a reputation for being especially sensitive to issues of race.
Scott said he was “very” surprised by the interest his audience with Trump has generated, but said he indicated the extent to which the American people have a hunger to engage on a complicated problem still plaguing the country.
Bill Douglas contributed to this report.