It was supposed to be a match made in heaven, but in the end Donald Trump was forced to forgo 12 pearly gates and streets paved with gold in favor of his luxury office tower in Midtown Manhattan.
As The Daily Beast reported over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the GOP frontrunner was set to meet Monday with dozens of high-profile black pastors and hold a subsequent press conference to tout an unprecedented group endorsement. As the sun set Sunday night—and several prominent preachers backed out—many questioned whether the event would even happen.
Pressed by their congregations and by a not-so-holy war that broke out on social media, some of the invited ministers issued flat denials, saying they agreed only to discuss key issues with the candidate and that endorsements were never a part of the bargain. Two of the biggest names on the nightclub-esque promotional flier, Los Angeles-based Bishop Clarence McClendon and Brooklyn-based Bishop Hezekiah Walker, announced Sunday they would not attend. Both issued statements on social media.
“The meeting was presented not as a meeting to endorse but as a meeting to engage in dialogue,” McClendon wrote on Facebook. Walker, who is also a chart-topping gospel music recording artist, was called an “Uncle Tom” and a “coon dancing with the devil” before he publicly declined the invitation on Instagram.
Early Monday, Trump blamed the controversy on young black activists, saying in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “Probably some of the Black Lives Matter folks called them up and said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be meeting with Trump because he believes all lives matter.’”
With expectations dampened, a small but resilient group of mostly black pastors stepped into a media scrum Monday afternoon to talk about the much publicized, now private meeting with Trump. There was no promised live-stream and no radio broadcast.
Ultimately, according to Trump and several pastors who attended, more than 100 faith leaders made the trek to tony Fifth Avenue. Members of the media could not establish the size of the larger group independently, as it presumably had been spirited out of a side entrance. Curiously, there was no traffic jam of black town cars or taxicabs outside the building. It is possible, though not confirmed, that the 100 faith leaders “attended” via webcast.
Some who were there in person said they were unsure about whether to support Trump and that they would “pray” about the matter before making a decision. It appeared they were still beseeching God for an answer Monday night, as no press release laden with marquee names had been issued.
I instantly recognized a tall, round woman with dramatically long curly tresses standing in the center of the marble lobby, wrapped in a mink coat and sporting a Chanel medallion around her neck. Dr. Cindy Trimm, a first-generation immigrant from Bermuda, opened the ad hoc press conference. Her words were eloquent and filled with promise, as she waxed on about the importance of an engaged citizenry. The author and motivational speaker was flanked by several ministers—one of them white and least three who were already ardent Trump supporters.
Beside her stood Bishop Darrell Scott, a black pastor from Ohio and co-convener of the spectacle, who was wearing a smartly cut suit and an easy smile. To his right was Omarosa Manigault—yes, the one-time reality television star best known for her bombastic appearances on NBC’s The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice—toting a Louis Vuitton handbag. Surprisingly serene and graceful, Manigault is an ordained minister now and says she “left everything behind” to attend seminary six years ago.
While her presence was expected, given her proximity to the Trump brand over the years, one had to wonder: What was it all for?
The Republican brand is toxic in most quarters of the black community. That said, the media avail felt more like a gambit to change the optics rather than an earnest effort to bring new hope to distressed communities. Trump, who has been busy alienating black voters with his nationalistic, almost barbaric approach to the campaign trail, is clearly in need of a healing.
But can a handful of black pastors—many of whom have no known history of political involvement, let alone delivering votes on Election Day—offer him a desperately needed anointing? Black evangelicals have long sold themselves to various right-wing candidates as the prophets some have been looking for. The numbers, however, are clear. Since the late 1960s, after the passage of the civil rights acts, Republican support from black voters has wallowed in the single digits.
Trump says he can change that, and he’s hoping that Scott and others will help him “part the waters.” The truth is Trump will need to touch the “hem” of somebody’s garment and learn to walk on water if he truly expects to lure a critical mass of African Americans into his campaign.
Citing poll numbers that say he could garner as much as 25 percent of the black vote in a general election, Trump seems unmoved by the implausibility of it all. He may know his way around a golf course or a bankruptcy proceeding, but history, it seems, isn’t his strong suit.
The meeting was “spirited, but respectful,” a church staffer who did not wish to be identified told The Daily Beast. “If somebody came looking for a monster, they didn’t find him.” Even so, this was a parade with no roses.
Bishop George Bloomer said it was like being invited to a concert, though he didn’t “hear” his “song.” For his part, Bloomer said he looks forward to meeting with other candidates from both sides of the aisle. Notably, it was Bloomer— a Brooklyn native and pastor of a 700-person strong congregation in Durham, North Carolina—who pressed Trump to address his previous “racial slurs” during Monday’s two-hour closed-door session. When the pastors were asked by reporters to be more specific about their differences and to detail what was meant by “slurs,” they declined to answer.
Responding to an open letter from 150 faith and academic leaders published Friday by Ebony challenging the group to rethink endorsing Trump, Bishop Scott directly questioned the ethics of the magazine’s management.
“By siding with a presidential candidate whose rhetoric pathologizes Black people, what message are you sending to the world about the Black lives in and outside of your congregations?” the letter read. “Which Black lives do you claim to be liberating?”
Like Bishop Bloomer, Dr. Trimm stopped short of issuing an endorsement. Trimm said she was not surprised by the backlash but that she embraced it. “Leadership emerges out of crisis,” she told The Daily Beast. “People simply want their voice to be heard.”
“[Black people] want to be able to participate in the American Dream,” Trimm told me by phone earlier in the day. “This is less about whether they agreed with me but more about being heard. Our job is to build capacity within the citizenry and build cultures of empowerment within communities.”
Embracing a roomful of black pastors and persuading a few to endorse him certainly aren’t enough to erase what has been—arguably—Trump’s history of racial animus and outright bigotry. And certainly, no single black pastor (or even 100 of them) will decide how African Americans will vote. But the first real test for Trump may come in South Carolina, where African Americans comprise more than 50 percent of Democratic primary voters. Ironically, the casino magnate seems to be betting the house that—with a hand from black prosperity gospel preachers—he can win them over.
But at least some of the faith leaders present Monday were already sold on the idea that Trump knows how to create jobs. During the press conference, the billionaire businessman pointed to unemployment rates that exceed 50 percent among young black men as one area where he can deliver.
Despite his claims, one could argue that Trump has been in a position to create jobs in predominantly African-American communities and simply has not done so in any meaningful way. His office towers, residential units, and golf resorts are built almost exclusively in wealthy white enclaves.
As I sat cross-legged holding a recorder in front of the bank of microphones Monday, I wondered why Trump’s decades-long career as a real estate developer has yielded almost no investments in the black community. A review of financial records revealed that few, if any, charitable contributions have been given to programs that directly benefit African-American children. Then, too, according to the company website, there is not a single black executive or key senior leader at The Trump Organization.
“Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” he famously told a colleague. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
Long before he recklessly retweeted false statistics that painted black people as criminally pathological, Trump was sued for housing discrimination. And there are reports that black employees at an Atlantic City property were kept out of view whenever Trump visited.
As I made my way up Fifth Avenue toward the subway, I wondered if the pastors weighing an endorsement would be praying about those things. I wondered if that is the kind of president they believe African Americans need most. I wondered, with admitted suspicion, who was actually doing the anointing. Were they—or was Trump?