Long before Donald Trump began his ongoing war of words with the “corrupt city” of Baltimore, he hosted a pastor from there at the White House for a signing ceremony during which he promised to help rescue ailing, largely black urban areas around the country.
Nearly a year later, the pastor is still waiting for the president to follow through on that pledge; or, as he put it, “to put up or shut up.”
In December, Rev. Donte Hickman, of Southern Baptist Church, attended the White House event where Trump signed an executive order announcing his new urban-revitalization council. The council was to be led by HUD Secretary Ben Carson and it aimed at aiding impoverished neighborhoods—including those in east Baltimore—via the “opportunity zones” created by his 2017 tax cut legislation.
“With the announcement of today’s council, the whole resources of the federal government will be leveraged to rebuild low-income and impoverished neighborhood that have been ignored by Washington in years past,” the president said at the ceremony.
Hickman spoke at the December event as well. And during it, he waxed optimistically about the executive order signed by the president, saying it would “make it possible for us to work with your administration on a common goal of investing to restore people as we rebuild properties in neglected communities.”
Trump, for his part, called Hickman “an incredible leader.”
Since then, President Trump has pointed to those opportunity zones—which are intended to help spark economic development in impoverished areas by giving investors tax incentives to invest there—to rebut criticism that he is racist due to his frequent, acid-tongued tweets and jabs directed at African-American communities and lawmakers. That’s been true in the wake of his latest criticism of Baltimore, which he’s targeted in an effort to undermine and demean House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who hails from the city.
But if Trump has done anything to help the city he’s spent the past several days trashing, that would be news to the pastor who once stood beside him.
“I hear the president say he’s done so much for Baltimore and cities like it, and maybe he thinks…he has, but he should count it, and do the math, and [ask] where is that money going in what areas, and how does it help the rat and rodent infested, filthy areas of the city that he spoke about,” Hickman said in a series of interviews this week. “I can identify those areas and can say if what we’ve received is the trajectory of where we’re going, then those communities are going to be in the same place two or three decades from now.”
Asked by The Daily Beast what his initiatives have received from the Trump administration, he replied, “Nothing yet.” Asked for a dollar amount of what has been delivered, in grants or other assistance, he responded: “Zero.”
“You can't keep talking about it and not do something about it,” Hickman said.
And yet, it appears that Trump is more than capable of doing exactly that.
This week, Trump has repeatedly claimed—without offering examples or specifics—that he’s been deluged with phone calls and written messages from African Americans, including those from Baltimore, praising him for his comments about Charm City and for his attacks on Cummings. Hickman, who works closely on poverty and urban-renewal projects in Baltimore, has no idea what President Trump is talking about.
“I am not one of those who has called the president to say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing’; I don’t know of any African Americans from the city who are saying that,” he said.
The pastor added that the comments he has heard from fellow black residents are a mixed bag when it comes to Trump, who on Friday appeared to cheer the news that Cummings’s home had been burglarized.
“The issue that the president is raising about the city is accurate, but if he doesn’t do anything beyond the rhetoric to change the reality, then it means nothing,” said Hickman.
The “tragedy” of the situation, Hickman said, is that Trump “set up an opportunity to really solve the problem.” But it is now a question of whether or not the president has the will to follow through. Asked to assign a grade to the president’s policy record on this issue, Hickman laughed and said, “if we’re to do it like was done in college, I would give him an ‘N/A,’” for not applicable and incomplete.
Hickman says he’s spent most of his life in Baltimore, raised in a single-parent home in the Edmondson Village neighborhood. He’s no stranger to making national headlines, having vociferously and publicly supported same-sex marriage during the Obama era.
The Baltimore pastor’s journey with the Trump administration began last year, shortly before the televised signing ceremony for the president’s much-touted executive order. Hickman recalls someone from the White House contacted him to say the president was interested in coming to his church in Baltimore, Maryland as well as to the area that was designated an opportunity zone. The White House asked the pastor what it would take for him to participate. Hickman told them he wasn’t interested in a mere “photo op” if the president was unwilling to match it with “some appropriation and investment” in the community. The White House asked for a number, to which the pastor replied, “$200 million.”
Soon enough, Hickman was invited to meet with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, at the White House. Hickman and several associates were able to present Kushner with their “master plan,” which, according to the pastor, Kushner effusively lauded as a model of how to transform a community. The president’s senior adviser said he wanted the White House to do “whatever they could” to help and asked Hickman and his team for more information so they could all get to work.
Hickman also told Kushner that he would love for President Trump to visit Baltimore. The Secret Service conducted two days of security sweeps at Hickman’s church in anticipation of a roundtable event that Trump was scheduled to attend. But, in the end, the president pulled out and instead hosted his signing ceremony at the White House in December. Before Hickman and Trump spoke before the cameras, the pastor met with the Carson-chaired council that was established to help oversee the grant programs across different departments and to streamline the funding to designated opportunity zones.
Hickman recalled being in the room where President Trump greeted the event’s VIPs, and hearing Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and another top West Wing adviser, standing behind him, saying: “This is one of the greatest feelings and things we’ve done, and has the greatest potential since we’ve been here. This feels so good.”
In the following months, Hickman said it became clear that the opportunity zones and the grant-application system were destined to be duds unless both were matched with a legislative package committing large amounts of money to help revitalize east Baltimore and other underserved locations.
The pastor told The Daily Beast that he’s had no contact with Kushner for a long time. However, he intends to submit a formal request for a sit-down with Kushner and Trump in the near future. Should he get one, he’d make the case that, despite the White House and the council’s efforts, there has not been effective streamlining of the grant-application process or adequate funding.
“[It’s] such an arduous process, that it might as well be the same that it’s been before the Trump administration,” the pastor noted. He said that when he’s followed up with White House staff with his concerns, he’s been sent a list of grants for which he can apply, with staff reminding him that the president doesn’t have the authority to appropriate funds. However, he’s been assured that because of the work he’s doing in an opportunity zone, his applications would receive “high marks.”
For now, at least, Hickman says it’s been talk but no action—and “that will be the epitaph on the legacy of this program if something is not done intentionally and urgently” soon. He stressed that he’s not only blaming Trump for failing east Baltimore. In his view, “everybody”—local politicians, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, the media, and senior administration officials—is failing his city.
“What do we get out of calling the president a racist besides a feel-good, kumbaya moment? People are still living in abject poverty and nobody is doing anything about it,” Hickman charged. “Beyond all of the feuding, and investigations, and racially provocative rhetoric of the president, there are still millions of people in inner-city America waiting for help.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Neither did a spokesperson for Secretary Carson.
None of the four White House officials who spoke to The Daily Beast this week said there were any serious discussions with the president during the past week regarding leaving Washington, D.C. to visit the neighboring Baltimore.
When asked if Trump had privately expressed any desire to champion an ambitious legislative package—the kind that Pastor Hickman is pleading for—one senior administration official laughed and simply asked, “You’re joking?”