In the minutes following a closed-door meeting with black pastors on Monday afternoon, billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump touted the event as a huge success. More than 100 leaders of the black Christian community were in attendance, he said, and virtually no one asked him to change his often controversial tone regarding minorities and immigrants.
“I thought it was an amazing meeting,” he said, flanked by about a half dozen pastors who said they would endorse the Republican frontrunner. “The beautiful thing [was] that they didn’t really ask me to change the tone. I think they really want to see victory, because ultimately it is about, we want to win and we want to win together.”
But not everyone who was present at the closed-door gathering fully agreed with Trump’s characterization of the event. Namely, Bishop Victor Couzens, who told ThinkProgress that the meeting was smaller and more critical than the candidate described.
“That’s not true,” Couzens said when told about Trump’s assertion that he wasn’t asked to change his rhetoric. “We spent a lot of time just discussing the overall tone of the campaign. I personally said to him, he needs to apologize. He needs to repent.”
Couzens said he thought the meeting was largely respectful, and that Trump had good intentions. “My immediate reaction was that he overall is very engaged,” he said. “All in all, I do think his intention would be to try to build bridges across minority communities.”
But Couzens also said he was disheartened that Trump did not seem receptive to repeated requests that he soften his brash rhetoric surrounding Mexican immigrants, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the disabled community. Indeed, Couzens said the conversation “began to break down” when Trump was asked to apologize for several inflammatory remarks.
“I told him, you should apologize and repent — we’re called to own up to our bad behavior. That’s when his staff interrupted and said, ‘Why should he, why this why that,'” Couzens said. “He let his people answer for him. He didn’t seem to mind that.”
Couzens added that he thought the purported size of the event was exaggerated.
“I’m pretty confident there weren’t 100 people there,” he said. “I would say maybe somewhere between 40 and 50.”
Monday’s meeting was mired in confusion well before it started. The week before, Trump’s campaign had told reporters that Trump would be endorsed by 100 black pastors at the upcoming meeting. Later, however, it was revealed that the majority of the pastors had never promised an endorsement, which led Trump to cancel a press conference he had originally scheduled to go along with the meeting.
The cancellation seemed to peeve Trump, who later said the Black Lives Matter movement must have pressured the religious leaders to withhold their support. But Black Lives Matter was not the driving force of protest; More than 100 black faith leaders from across the country signed an open letter opposing their colleagues’ meeting with Trump.
Either way, Couzens said Trump and the other pastors at Monday’s event did not specifically discuss Black Lives Matter. They did, however, talk about police brutality targeting blacks, the reason for protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the need to create economic “industry and opportunity” in black communities. Couzens thought Trump was receptive to those issues.
“He seemed concerned, like he was empathetic to the people who were impacted more directly by [police brutality],” he said. “He mentioned [the death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago], and how preposterous he thought it was that someone could be shot 16 times. He said, even if a police officer has to shoot someone, shoot them in his leg.”
Trump’s purported concern, plus the high level of diversity within the Trump Tower staff, led Couzens to believe Trump isn’t really a racist. “He just has very bad bedside manner,” he said.
Still, Couzens said Trump’s bedside manner was just as important as his intention. And his unwillingness to change his tone regarding race did not bode well for a possible endorsement.
“If he’s not willing to apologize … he’s going to lose a lot of the minority votes,” he said. “[His tone] works well for where he came from — corporate America, the board room — But I think the leader of the free world has to be a little more sensitive, a little more engaging.”
What was most concerning to Couzens, however, wasn’t Trump’s individual rhetoric toward minorities — it was the fact that his rhetoric has been resonating with so many American voters. For months, Trump has had an unprecedented lead in nearly every national poll, despite numerous comments that many have perceived as racist, sexist, or nationalist.
“The fact that he can behave like that, and he’ll continue to soar in the polls — That really says something about where we are as a nation,” Couzens said. “It’s like, what’s going on in our country? I understand that most people are at the point where we don’t want another establishment politician, but at the same time, is this what we want? Is this the lesser of two evils?”