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Trump Ally Owens Sows Division Among Other Black Supporters

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/27/2020 Mario Parker
a group of people sitting in front of a curtain: Political commentator Candace Owens, center right, embraces U.S. President Donald Trump, center left, during the Young Black Leadership Summit 2019 event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Two outside groups that support Trump have raised $6.9 million since House Democrats announced their impeachment inquiry last week. © Bloomberg Political commentator Candace Owens, center right, embraces U.S. President Donald Trump, center left, during the Young Black Leadership Summit 2019 event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Two outside groups that support Trump have raised $6.9 million since House Democrats announced their impeachment inquiry last week.

(Bloomberg) -- The White House’s embrace of a prominent Black advocate for Donald Trump who made inflammatory remarks about George Floyd has caused turmoil among other African Americans close to the president, threatening their support for his re-election.

The dispute began earlier this month, shortly after Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police. Candace Owens, a Black author and pundit known for her aggressive support for Trump and provocative views on race, called Floyd a “violent criminal” and a “horrible human being” in a video she posted on Twitter.

She also criticized Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man allegedly murdered by two armed White men in Georgia in February, accusing him of breaking into homes before he was killed.

Trump has consistently polled in the single digits among Black voters. After Owens’s remarks, which drew criticism from other Black conservatives, Vice President Mike Pence invited her to the White House for a private discussion of U.S. racial divisions. That caused the small community of conservative Black pastors, Republican strategists, businesspeople and celebrities that act as public surrogates for Trump, advocating his re-election, to nearly rupture, according to interviews with several of them.

a man talking on a cell phone: Political commentator Candace Owens introduces U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, during the Young Black Leadership Summit 2019 event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Two outside groups that support Trump have raised $6.9 million since House Democrats announced their impeachment inquiry last week. © Bloomberg Political commentator Candace Owens introduces U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, during the Young Black Leadership Summit 2019 event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Two outside groups that support Trump have raised $6.9 million since House Democrats announced their impeachment inquiry last week.

“We’re all in damage-control mode right now,” said Angela Stanton-King, a surrogate for the president who met with Pence on June 9. “Her delivery harms the work we’re trying to do in the Black conservative movement.”

“You have Black America crying out and hurt,” she added. “It kind of feeds into the narrative that this is a racist administration.”

Without mentioning Owens by name, Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who has been one of Trump’s most visible African American proponents, said that criticism of Floyd and nationwide protests that followed his death “sparked a doggone firestorm” and that “it almost caused a conservative civil war” among Black Trump supporters.

Owens’s meeting with Pence amplified concerns about her comments on Floyd. Scott said that he spent days on the phone, working to hold together Trump’s coalition of Black surrogates. Other Black Trump supporters he didn’t name told him that if Trump’s campaign was identifying with Owens’s message on Floyd, they would sit out the election, he said.

Low Black Support

Scott and Stanton-King are both members of “Black Voices for Trump,” an outreach effort to the Black community within the president’s campaign. Scott is often at Trump’s side for announcements on initiatives intended to benefit the Black community.

Trump has not gone so far as Owens to criticize Floyd personally. Arbery’s family was among a group he invited to the White House earlier this month for a private meeting before signing an executive order to encourage better use-of-force training for police.

None of his Black surrogates said they were breaking with the president.

Trump drew only about 8% of African American votes in 2016. He provokes frequent accusations that he’s racist, spurred by his routine use of racially insensitive language in speeches -- such as calling the coronavirus “Kung flu.”

Yet his re-election depends, in part, on both retaining what little Black support he’s got and encouraging as many African Americans as possible to vote for him -- or stay home -- instead of for his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. The president’s Black surrogates -- Scott, King, Owens and others -- are crucial to that effort, helping him to deflect accusations of racism and publicly promoting policies he says have benefited the Black community.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll published June 25 found Trump drawing the support of just 5% of Black voters, but noted that only about two-thirds of Black adults under age 40 say Biden is sympathetic to problems Black people face in the U.S.

Floyd’s death and the protests that followed placed new pressure on Black Trump advocates, as the president criticized people protesting police brutality -- calling them thugs, looters and terrorists -- and threatened to turn the military against them.

The Trump campaign downplayed the importance of Owens and her views.

“While she is not directly affiliated with the campaign, Candace Owens is a prominent Black supporter of the president,” said Katrina Pierson, a campaign spokeswoman, in a statement. “Everyone has their own experiences and opinions, and not everyone agrees on every issue. That’s the beauty of America.”

‘Blexit’ Founder

In an email, Owens declined to participate in this story. “Exploring my perspective on George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery could be interesting, but doing so in a manner meant to pit me against other Black Americans is just not at all what I am about,” she wrote.

Owens, 31, made her name as a combative spokeswoman for Turning Point USA, a conservative advocacy group for college students that backs Trump. She now boasts more than 2 million Twitter followers and is a regular presence on conservative cable and talk-radio programs and at conservative events.

She founded a movement she calls “Blexit” that seeks to encourage Black voters to abandon the Democratic Party. She was invited by Republicans to testify to Congress in a September hearing on hate crimes and White supremacy, where she said she wouldn’t include White nationalists in a list of 100 problems facing the Black community.

“We don’t see hearings on those bigger issues,” Owens said. “You brought up the inner-city communities, which is a huge issue. Black-on-Black crime, the breakdown of family I think is the number-one thing that’s contributing to that, and we never hear anybody talking about what happens when you remove a father from the home.”

She minimized police brutality in the hearing, describing it as an issue raised by politicians in the context of presidential elections.

“If you were paying attention to politicians, you would have thought that if you were a Black American, you couldn’t walk outside without being shot by a police officer,” she said. “When, in fact, you had a higher chance of being struck by lightning as a Black American in 2016 than being shot unarmed by a police officer.”

She has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, even as it’s increasingly embraced by corporate America and ordinary Americans during the Floyd protests. It’s “a trash organization that has nothing to do with Black lives,” she has said.

Trump has frequently praised Owens. He said at an October 2018 White House “Young Black Leadership” summit that Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk’s “greatest achievement may have been Candace Owens.”

“What I suspect is that because of her larger-than-life presence and the events at the White House, with bringing young Black conservatives, and her Blexit movement and being called to testify before Congress, is that the president and some people around him believe she has her finger on the pulse of Black America,” said Melik Abdul, a Black Trump supporter and Republican strategist who is critical of Owens.

“People around” Trump have probably “convinced him that she’s an asset to getting the Black vote,” he added. “My response is: Show me the money.”

Pence Meeting

In a June 3 interview with Glenn Beck, discussing Floyd’s past, Owens said the “fact that he has been held up as a martyr sickens me” and that “George Floyd was not a good person.” Owens participated in Pence’s meeting at the White House the next day, which included luminaries of the Black conservative movement such as Kay C. James, president of the Heritage Foundation.

James didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Vice President Pence has engaged African American community leaders across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death,” Devin O’Malley, a Pence spokesman, said in an e-mail. “These listening sessions are organized with the goal of hearing community members and discussing ways to unify the country, and are not defined by any one attendee.”

Before the Pence meeting, Owens said that protests in Floyd’s name are “a symbol of Black America today, it is a symbol of a broken culture in Black America today. George Floyd was not a good person.” Floyd died after a White Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes while arresting him for an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.

Trump retweeted Beck’s video of his exchange with Owens on June 5.

Scott appeared with the president at a White House event on June 10. As he worked to hold together Trump’s Black surrogates, he said he had conversations with the Republican National Committee about messaging to Black voters.

“People that have proximity to the president need to be more careful about” their comments, he said. African-American culture, he said, frowns on speaking ill of the dead, and he said that he had a rough past himself when he was younger, so he withholds judgment of people with criminal records.

He also criticized conservative appeals to Black voters that liken their allegiance to the Democratic party to slavery and plantations, and said he had conveyed that sentiment to the RNC. Arguments for African Americans to vote Republican should be in line with the president’s own focus on the economic benefits of his policies to the Black community and other data, rather than emotion, he said.

In February, Owens was among featured speakers at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the largest gatherings of conservatives. The audience is primarily White. There she adapted a Frederick Douglass quote about slavery into a critique of the relationship between Black people and Democrats.

“I have seen how a man was made a slave. I have seen how Black Americans have been enslaved to the debate of race, how liberals, how leftists, how Democrats continue to enchain us to this inconsequential debate, while robbing us blindly of our family, our faith and our future for their abhorrent policies,” Owens said.

Owens’s upcoming book is titled “Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation.”

The president has never indicated any concern about Owens’s remarks. In October, speaking at the latest Young Black Leadership summit at the White House, he suggested she could one day run for president.

“Candace Owens -- I watched her, and I saw her coming. I said -- you know, I’m pretty good at star power. I look, and I say, ‘That’s a star,’” Trump said at the time.

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