Black conservatives reel after Omarosa resigns
WASHINGTON — When the White House senior staff convened Friday for a regular briefing, there was not one black person among the roughly 30 people gathered, and few minorities overall.
The departure Wednesday of Omarosa Manigault, the former assistant to the president and longtime Trump confidant, gained headlines for its bizarre circumstances — she reportedly tried to gain access to the president’s private residence before her White House security pass was revoked.
But her sudden absence also casts a fresh spotlight on the startling lack of racial diversity in Trump’s administration.
Until Tuesday, she was employed as communications director for the Office of Public Liaison, and more critically, she had a frequent audience with President Trump in the Oval Office. Now, many black conservatives are worried that Manigault’s departure means they’ve lost their only avenue to influence the president.
No potential replacements have yet emerged, and a timetable for replacing her was not clear Friday.
African-American representation is especially thin among the ranks of roughly 125 “commissioned officers’’ within the White House, high-ranking staffers designated as assistant, deputy assistant, and special assistant to the president. There are only three black staff members with the commissioned officer rank, according to an administration official who asked not to be named because the official was not permitted to release personnel information. The White House would not provide a list of those black staffers.
The list does include Ja’Ron Smith, a midlevel black staffer, who was promoted this week to be special assistant to the president, which is the lowest commissioned rank and below the level at which Manigault served. The White House would not say when he received his new position.
“Whether it’s because Omarosa left or whether it was an image issue, Ja’Ron deserves the opportunity,” said Gianno Caldwell, a black Republican political strategist and Fox News contributor. “He’s smart and incredibly strategic and has a skill set that is unmatched.”
A hallmark of the Trump administration’s first year has been its struggle to connect with black communities, with the president seeming to go out of his way at times to offend nonwhites. Trump offered a partial defense of white supremacists after a riot in Charlottesville, Va., attacked prominent black lawmakers including Representative Maxine Waters, and used vulgar language to attack black athletes protesting police brutality.
Manigault, a fiery former reality television star, was often a divisive personal figure within the administration, and would get into personal spats with colleagues and reporters. But officials close to the White House have also said she used her personal relationship with the president to advocate for greater inclusion of minority voices and organizations.
That voice is now gone.
“She was the one bringing black folks to the table,” said Caldwell. “That was her great benefit.”
Caldwell said that Manigault had “great influence” with Trump from her long relationship with him well before he was involved with politics, and it began with Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice.” Manigault was “not barred by the traditional role that staffers have with any president,” Caldwell said.
Outside the West Wing, there is a smidgen more diversity within the administration. White House officials point to Trump’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, who is black; Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, who is Hispanic; Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is Asian-American; and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American.
A Globe survey of White House personnel making more than $100,000 showed few minority staff overall.
There was one black person, Leah LeVell, among the dozens of staff who handle press and communications in the Trump White House, but she recently left for another job. There is an Indian-American in a senior communications role — Raj Shah is the principal deputy press secretary.
The White House declined to comment for this story. At a press briefing Thursday, press secretary Sarah Sanders would not provide numbers about the racial diversity of White House staff, though she asserted that the administration was committed to the concept.
“We have a really diverse team across the board at the White House,” Sanders said. “Something that we strive for every day is to add and grow, to be more diverse and more representative of the country at large, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Katrina Pierson, the black woman who once served as Trump’s national campaign spokeswoman during election season, was considered for a slot in the White House, but she turned it down.
Pierson said she’s unconcerned with the lack of diversity among Trump’s top staffers.
“Optics really only matter in politics,” Pierson said in an interview. “I think what people really care about is the policy that’s coming down the pipe . . . so I’m not really concerned at all.”
Manigault had several signature issues during her time in the White House, including supporting historically black colleges and universities and protecting Haitian immigrants, according to people familiar with her role. It also included behind-the-scenes advocacy for more racial diversity among new hires in the administration.
One example is Earl Matthews, a black, Harvard-trained lawyer whom Manigault pushed to be the Army’s general counsel.
Matthews, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, has been the principal deputy general counsel for the Army since June. But Matthews’s name hasn’t been put forward for the top spot.
Instead, to the dismay of some in the White House, the Trump administration tapped two white candidates. The first, Ryan Dean Newman was blocked by Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, because of his opposition to including women in the military draft, according to Defense News.
The administration then turned to James E. McPherson, who is also white. His nomination was approved by the Armed Services Committee last month and appears to be on a glide path for confirmation by the full Senate.
Another bone of contention has been Smith, the newly promoted black special assistant to the president. Smith was an aide to Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and joined the Trump White House in January.
Smith is known as a policy wonk and is frequently cited by black conservatives as their most trusted person in the White House. He joined the administration in January and was promised that he would have a commissioned officer rank and salary, according to a senior White House official. Instead, he received a midlevel job and was paid $83,000 — a far cry from senior policy officials and in the bottom half of White House salaries overall.
Smith’s hefty portfolio includes working on issues such as urban affairs, transportation, and criminal justice reform, according to a Trump administration official.
Many felt Manigault, though not always successful, could make the case for diversity in the administration, sometimes bypassing traditional order and speaking to the president himself.
When Trump was criticized for not adequately condemning white supremacists in Charlottesville in August, it was Manigault who relayed the concerns of black staffers, officials said. She also advocated for Haitian immigrants to be spared deportation under the temporary protected status program.
“I appreciated the fact that she started and tried to be a voice for black organizations,” Caldwell said.
But Manigault’s rapid ascension to the senior levels of the White House was always a point of controversy, even in the country’s small, close-knit circle of black conservatives. Some felt she was emblematic of an administration that valued personal relationships over expertise and that her penchant for drama weighed the administration down.
Before becoming famous on “The Apprentice,” Manigault served in the Clinton administration and had publicly embraced liberal views. She left the Democratic Party when Trump announced his run for president, and was formally brought to the White House as the director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.
On Thursday, the president wished her good luck in future endeavors.
“I like Omarosa,” Trump said. “I think Omarosa is a good person.”