Following a Monday meeting with approximately 100 African-American pastors and religious leaders, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump emerged into the lobby of his signature Fifth Avenue property and declared it a success.
“There was great love in the room,” said the billionaire, who was swarmed by reporters gathered at Trump Tower.
A day earlier, a formal press conference was scrapped after some of the evangelical pastors invited complained that Trump's campaign had incorrectly stated they were planning to endorse the candidate at the event.
“We actually didn’t think we were going to be having a press conference,” Trump explained at the center of the disorganized scrum. “But we all thought it was such a good meeting we would do that. And we have many, many endorsements that came out of the meeting.”
Darrell Scott, the pastor of the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who had organized the meeting, was similarly upbeat. “We had a very productive, constructive meeting. We made history today because we had meaningful dialogue with Mr. Donald Trump,” Scott said. “We had a wonderful time, wonderful dialogue, wonderful fellowship,” he continued. “It is a great day.”
When asked about fellow clergy who declined to endorse Trump the same day, Scott cast it as perhaps only a matter of time. “Some ministers were meeting him today for the first time,” he said. “They want to hear his voice, they’re going to pray to God about it as ministers do—but nobody came up with a negative reaction in any kind of way.”
Trump was even more effusive. “We came up with lots of good ideas and lots of future ideas,” he said. “We’re going to be solving a lot of problems.” He and others attending said that the group discussed subjects including police violence, tax incentives, the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump emphasized a focus on the economy and job creation. “Right now you have black youth—if you look at African-American youth, we’re at 51 and 55 and 57 percent unemployed.”
One of the pastors present was Omarosa Manigault, a contestant on the inaugural season of Trump’s The Apprentice and a reverend at the Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. As pastors jockeyed to find a position in an impromptu press conference, Manigault advised her fellow clergy, “You gotta think about the optics, not logistics.”
She, like Scott, told reporters how well the meeting had gone. “They asked him every question you want to know,” she said. “I felt like we came out of the meeting knowing that Donald Trump is committed to Christian values, that Donald Trump is committed to the black community. He’s committed to working—but more importantly opening a dialogue. I don’t know any of the other candidates that took two and a half, almost three hours to sit down and talk to black clergy, and that’s important to be noted.”
Victor Couzens, a pastor from Cincinnati, said afterward, “My takeaway is that I think that by having this meeting Mr. Trump is attempting to build bridges with the minority community.” Asked about some of Trump’s dismissive comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, Couzens said, “I'm not entirely convinced that he is a racist. I think he has bad bedside manners.” Trump, Couzens argued, needs to pursue building a base at the grassroots level, and is “going to have to offer some apologies,” but believed that the candidate stood a real chance.
The meeting with the pastors contained its share of controversy. On Friday, more than 100 religious leaders and academics published an open letter in Ebony magazine criticizing black clergy members for their decision to meet with him. “Trump’s racially inaccurate, insensitive and incendiary rhetoric should give those charged with the care of the spirits and souls of Black people great pause,” the letter stated.
Asked for his response to the letter, Reverend Scott said, “Ebony magazine needs to do some responsible journalism.”
Across the street from the gathering, Regis Wheat, a 58-year-old African-American who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Brooklyn, took a cigarette break from work on Madison Avenue. He says he sees Trump and his daughter Ivanka in the neighborhood frequently. A member of the Calvary Baptist Church in Queens, Wheat said that he was very surprised when Trump announced that 100 clergy members were endorsing him. “I was like, you have got to be kidding,” he said. “What about your congregation? I’m sure 80 to 90 percent of your congregation if not 100 percent is that whoa, whoa, hold your horses right now.”
But Dwayne Hard, another spiritual leader who attended the event, came away impressed. “I think that this was a good format, it’s starting a good conversation that he is wiling to have,” Hard said. He told Bloomberg Politics that he was not ready to endorse any candidate, but added, “Let me say it this way: he was very attentive. And one of the things I was most impressed with is he said, ‘I learned a lot today.’”