ATLANTA — President Trump sought Friday to demonstrate support within the black community ahead of his reelection bid next year, vowing to campaign for “every last African American vote” even as polls show him with anemic standing among that key demographic.
The president rallied a few hundred supporters at a Black Voices for Trump campaign event at the Georgia World Congress Center, where he boasted about economic gains and criminal justice reform and denounced Democratic leadership in major American cities.
Referring to the Democrats’ overwhelming advantage among black voters, Trump told the audience: “It’s amazing that you’ve stayed so long, to be honest. It almost becomes a habit, right? Like it’s, ‘Oh, we vote for a Democrat.’ Nobody knows why they vote for a Democrat.”
Trump was routed among black voters in 2016, with Democrat Hillary Clinton winning 88 percent compared with just 8 percent who supported Trump, according to exit polls. Campaign officials suggested that the new outreach effort, co-chaired by businessman Herman Cain and Detroit pastor Darrell Scott, will boost Trump’s support in black communities.
But some analysts have suggested the president’s goal is to demonstrate to white voters in the suburbs, where Republicans are bleeding support, that he is racially tolerant despite racially charged and racist attacks on minority Congress members over the summer.
The president was joined at the event by several of his most prominent African American surrogates. Among them was Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who introduced the president with a fiery speech eviscerating black political leaders who, he said, attempt to shame Trump’s black supporters.
“It takes a lot of courage to say you’re supporting Trump,” Carson told the crowd. “Today, they say if you are a conservative, you’re somehow an Uncle Tom, you’re a horrible person, a demon. What a bunch of crap.”
Carson, who for nearly two years has been the only black official among Trump’s two dozen Cabinet members or West Wing senior staff, defended the president’s record, including as a businessman before taking office.
“If he’s a racist, he’s an awfully bad one,” Carson said, adding that the “real racists” are those who believe all black voters must have the same political views.
The president appeared upbeat during his hour-long address, and he praised supporters in the crowd, including performers Diamond and Silk and Daniel Cameron, who on Tuesday was elected to become the first black attorney general in Kentucky history.
Trump faces a potentially difficult fight for reelection that could hinge on narrow margins in a few key states, including Pennsylvania, where the percentage of black voters dropped from 14 percent in 2012 to 10 percent in 2016, hurting Clinton.
But Trump faces a steep challenge to make inroads of his own with black voters. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in late October found that just 7 percent of African Americans approve of Trump’s job performance, compared with 49 percent of whites and 38 percent of Americans overall. In all, 89 percent of black Americans disapprove of Trump, including 80 percent who “strongly” disapprove.
Over the summer, Trump engaged in taunts with a group of minority lawmakers, telling four Democratic congresswomen, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), to “go back” to foreign countries, even though three were born in the United States and the fourth is a U.S. citizen.
Trump also derided the late representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), calling his home district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” And he has routinely disparaged former president Barack Obama, who maintains widespread support among African Americans.
Trump made no specific mention of those fights during his remarks, but he did cite crime and low-performing schools to assert that Democrats have failed in their leadership of many urban areas. He cited the strong economy, including a historically low unemployment rate, as well as work his administration has done to begin reforming the criminal justice system, as evidence that his policies are helping minority communities.
He accused Democrats of appealing to black voters during election cycles before “forgetting about you” in the years in between.
“They don’t fight for the African American community,” Trump said.
The purpose of the new coalition, according to a Trump campaign official, is to raise money, train activists and conduct outreach to black voters, with a message focused on the economy and prosperity.
“The president’s message is very clear: What we’ve done has benefited that particular community in dramatic ways,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who was among several Georgia lawmakers, all white, who accompanied Trump to Atlanta, where they also participated in a GOP fundraiser.
Perdue continued: “I believe Democrats have pandered to that community for quite a while — that’s my personal opinion — and have failed them, and that’s what President Trump’s message is, partly, as well.”
Campaign officials are touting a number of economic figures they say show how the Trump administration’s policies have benefited African Americans. The statistics cited include more than 1.2 million jobs created for black Americans since his election, leading to a 5.4 percent unemployment rate, and 350,000 fewer African Americans in poverty during Trump’s presidency.
The campaign also plans to highlight a number of his administration’s accomplishments targeted toward black communities, including an Opportunity Zones program created under the 2017 tax law aimed at bolstering investment in low-income communities and the sweeping criminal justice overhaul law that Trump signed into law last year.
Many in the crowd wore red Trump campaign hats with the “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” slogans. Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law who works as campaign adviser, mingled and took photos with supporters. The crowd cheered loudly when Trump took the stage, standing on chairs and snapping photos with their phones.
The president spent time denouncing the House Democrats’ impeachment probe over his conduct in a call with the leader of Ukraine last summer, calling it a “deranged, hyperpartisan” effort to “nullify” the 2016 election results. Democrats, he said, “are wiling to destroy the pillars of our society in their craven pursuit of power and money.”
At one point, the crowd began chanting “four more years” and “eight more years!”
“Sixteen more years,” Trump suggested with a chuckle. Then he pointed at reporters covering the event and added derisively: “They’ll all go back and say, ‘I told you he wants to be a dictator.’ These people are crazy.”
Nakamura reported from Washington.