Almost a month ago, as the coronavirus exacted an outsized toll on vulnerable groups across America, President Donald Trump turned to an under-the-radar White House council to quickly determine how the federal government “can best support minority and distressed communities.”
Little has come of it. The White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, repurposed by Trump on April 22 to confront the pandemic’s disproportionate damage to communities of color, is still assembling proposals to reduce racial health disparities that have been magnified by the coronavirus outbreak, according to four people familiar with the planning.
Nearly three months into the pandemic, administration officials are still trying to formulate a comprehensive plan for helping minority communities — particularly African Americans and Latinos — hit disproportionately hard by the virus. The mounting concerns about inaccessible testing and high hospitalization rates are highlighting a gaping hole in Trump’s pandemic response — worries that also threaten to ricochet through the president’s 2020 reelection operation six months out from Election Day.
Trump campaign officials, who have spent months investing in outreach to black and Latino voters ahead of November, now face the difficult task of courting communities that have been ravaged by the virus and are frustrated with what they perceive as a lackluster response from the administration.
A senior administration official familiar with the council, which is led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, said the group is still weighing policy proposals from federal agencies and will be presenting a plan to Trump “in the near future.” The council has held discussions with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), an architect of the federal opportunity zone program, and two aides to Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The delay in tackling the disproportionate mortality and infection rates and financial strain in minority communities — some of the most severe of the coronavirus crisis — underscores the challenge administration officials face as they grapple with a dire public health crisis.
“Secretary Carson was supposed to take some initiative to deal with this, but I haven’t heard anything since then. It’s hard to be critical of their strategy excluding racial disparity issues when there doesn’t seem to be any strategy at all,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who participated in a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence and House Democrats last month where concerns about underserved populations repeatedly came up.
Pence has also discussed the issue with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose city has seen African American residents succumb to the virus at nearly six times the rate of white residents, according to public data analyzed by the Chicago Tribune. The vice president’s involvement, though welcomed by state leaders who have praised his responsiveness, has confused some administration officials who said it was unclear who is spearheading the administration’s response to racial and ethnic minorities that showed a particular vulnerability to the novel coronavirus.
Carson, Scott and two Kushner allies inside the White House Office of American Innovation have all claimed involvement and led separate phone calls and virtual meetings on the subject. The senior administration official said Carson “is leading discussions and we’re definitely working with Senator Scott and having collaborative conversations with the White House.”
“A lot of this is going to be using the CARES Act, as well as putting together proposals to fortify public health and empower business sectors in these communities to better recover,” the official added, citing the $2 trillion coronavirus response bill that Congress passed last month.
Administration officials including Carson have held several discussions with organizations in urban communities, as well as local and state officials. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters this week the administration previously set aside $2 billion for hospitals in underserved communities out of a $12 billion pool of provider relief payments.
Trump has also repeatedly highlighted the $30 billion of Paycheck Protection funds that was set aside for smaller loan recipients, including minority-owned businesses. During a Fox News town hall on May 3, the president said he would release a report within two weeks outlining further plans to address the “totally disproportional effect” Covid-19 has had on racial minorities.
A White House spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the status of such a report.
The dearth of information about the federal government’s plans to correct failures that have exacerbated the pandemic’s impact on communities of color has not stopped the president — or his campaign — from using the topic to forge ahead in their pursuit of black and Latino supporters.
On Tuesday, the Trump campaign said in an email blast that the president is “prioritizing underserved communities” and overseeing “the greatest mobilization [of the federal government] since World War II.” The campaign has also included “Black voices for Trump” gatherings with senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson in its weekly programming since the pandemic forced most 2020 campaign events into the virtual sphere.
A Facebook video posted by the campaign last week touted the president’s purchase of 250 burritos from a Latino-owned restaurant during an event Trump hosted at an N95 mask factory in Phoenix, Ariz.
Nevertheless, minority voters have continued to give the president low marks for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 80,000 American lives since February.
Only 21 percent of African American respondents and 35 percent of Hispanics said they approve of Trump’s approach to Covid-19 in a Morning Consult survey taken in late April, the same week the president suggested consuming household disinfectants could protect Americans from the virus. A separate CNN poll released this week found that 69 percent of non-white voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the viral outbreak.
“The problem for us is there is no good news on the horizon,” said one person close to the Trump campaign. “Even when daily cases slow down, it will take years for underserved communities to rebuild themselves and President Trump doesn’t have the luxury of time right now.”
One of the recurring complaints administration officials have faced as they work to address Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities has been a testing shortage in communities that are predisposed to the virus due to existing environmental risks and underlying health factors.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said in an op-ed on Thursday that while testing has increased in “white, affluent communities … more COVID-19 cases and deaths in low-income, minority communities” have occurred.
“We have the data to pinpoint who is at the highest risk during this pandemic and to identify the factors that put them at risk. It’s time we put two and two together and bring testing and contact tracing to the communities who need it most,” wrote Rush, who has advocated for the creation of a $100 billion grant program to boost mobile testing and door-to-door outreach in minority communities.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration’s czar on Covid-19 testing, said at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on Monday that the administration planned to announce a contract in the near future to “guarantee a national network of state, local and community-based organizations” to provide racial and ethnic minorities with improved access to testing and care.
In the hopes of preventing minority populations from feeling ignored by the administration’s response to Covid-19, Kushner recently tapped two of his top aides, Brooke Rollins and Ja’Ron Smith, to work with HUD officials and others on responding to minority-specific issues related to the virus.
The president’s son-in-law has long argued that a two or three-point gain in African American support for Trump, who failed to reach double digits among black voters in 2016, could help offset his declining appeal with other demographics who have made his path to reelection more difficult in a handful of swing states.
One campaign official said that in order to survive the November contest, Trump needs to eat into the overwhelming support his likely challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, enjoys among African Americans, while also strengthening his appeal among non-college educated whites.
The problem is, Trump’s singular strength with non-white voters — his handling of the U.S. economy — has disappeared as a reliable talking point in the coronavirus era. From campaign rallies in minority communities to speeches in front of conservative black audiences, the president’s most common refrain has been about low unemployment and steady wage growth, two relics of a pre-coronavirus economy.
A Labor Department report last Friday put the sudden economic collapse in dire terms for minority communities: the jobless rate for African Americans more than doubled in April, reaching its highest rate (16.7 percent) since 2010, while the unemployment rate for Latinos rose to 18.9 percent.
“Last time it was, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ Now you show them that they’ve gained from President Trump and what more they can gain if they get four more years of President Trump,” Kushner said at a Trump campaign briefing in February.
In lieu of a campaign message that’s tied to the fourth quarter economic rebound Trump has predicted — including what it could do for minority workers — the president has recently begun complaining about his predecessor’s approach to previous global health crises and a generalized scandal he’s described as “Obamagate.”
“We are getting great marks for the handling of the CoronaVirus pandemic, especially from the early BAN of people from China, the infectious source, entering the USA. Compared that to the Obama/Sleepy Joe disaster known as H1N1 Flu. Poor marks, bad polls - didn’t have a clue!” Trump tweeted last weekend.
Though the approach has baffled some White House officials, others say the president is waiting for the right moment to refocus on minority communities — and allowing state officials to take the lead in the meantime. This could come before the end of May, according to two administration officials, who said the president is planning an announcement about his administration’s efforts to improve medical care and economic conditions in communities of color.
Kildee, the Democratic congressman from Michigan, said that while the administration’s recent push to increase testing in outbreak areas and address medical supply shortages has had a positive impact on communities across his state, he is hoping the White House will outline clearer prescriptions for minority populations and implement them in a timely fashion.
“Obviously when we all do better, it helps everybody, so as responses have improved, it’s been positive here in Michigan,” he said. “But you still see a disparity and my experience with the administration has been that they are fully capable of saying the right words, they just haven’t figured out how to run a government.”