Former RNC chair Michael Steele on Friday refused an apology from Conservative Political Action Conference communications director Ian Walters, who said during a dinner earlier in the evening that Steele had only been elected chairman “because he was a Black guy.”
“He did call and tried to explain himself,” Steele told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “And he related it back to Barack Obama’s election. And he said at one point, I apologize. And I said, that’s not acceptable, that’s not enough.”
Walters was speaking at CPAC’s Ronald Reagan Dinner on Friday night when he told the crowd, “We elected Mike Steele as chairman because he was a black guy, that was the wrong thing to do.” According to those in the room at the time, the comment was met with audible gasps.
The Wrap media editor Jon Levine was the first to report the comment.
CPAC communication director Ian Walters at Reagan dinner
“We elected Mike Steele as chairman because he was a black guy, that was the wrong thing to do”
— Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan) February 24, 2018
Steele, who was just outside the ballroom when Walters made the remark, told Reid that he had found out about the comment after it popped up on his phone’s screen.
“I was finishing up my radio program on Sirius XM and it came across my phone. Someone came running up to the table and said, ‘have you seen this,’ right in the middle of the conversation I was having with one of our guests. And I looked down at my phone…. of course I had one of those moments where you just go, ‘what the?’ So yeah, a little shocked, a little disappointed,” he said.
He added, “Surprised that people still in the party feel this way and look at the contributions that anyone would make to the party through the prism of race. It’s unfortunate, it’s stupid, it’s immature. And I’m waiting to speak with [CPAC chair] Matt Schlapp about it. I hope it is not a reflection of the leadership of CPAC.”
In separate comments to the Observer earlier in the evening, Steele said that Walters’ comments indicated a lack of maturity. “If he feels that way I’d like him to come say that to my face. And then I’d like him to look at my record and see what I did,” he said. “[His comments show] a lack of maturity and a lack of understanding of the work we did and the work we continue to do. My skin color has nothing to do with that even if he thinks it does.”
WATCH: At the Ronald Reagan Dinner at CPAC, ACU Communications Director Ian Walters said the RNC hired Michael Steele as chairman in 2009 "because he’s a black guy." pic.twitter.com/g6YcyLET5w
— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 24, 2018
Steele appeared on MSNBC again on Saturday, where Reid pressed him on the issue once more.
“Do you think that the Republican Party has a racism problem?” Reid asked.
Steele responded bluntly, “Yes, they do. I think we need to be honest and acknowledge it. I think the fact that people sit here now and say, ‘Well, this has nothing to do with race”… yeah, it does, when you stand on a podium and blatantly speak to race the way Ian did.”
Hoping to do damage control, CPAC chair Schlapp appeared on Steele’s Sirius XM radio show later on Saturday and expressed an apology, but refused to dissociate himself with Walters. “Those words that tumbled out of his mouth, I believed were unfortunate words,” Schlapp said.
“They were stupid. It’s not ‘unfortunate.’ Call it what it is,” Steele responded. “It is stupid to sit there and say that we elected a black man chairman of the Party and that was a mistake. Do you know how that sounds to the black community? Do you know how that sounds to Americans? And do you know how they then that equate that level of stupidity to conservatism? That’s the objection I have to the moment that we’re at.”
Steele has faced criticism from Republicans in recent days over his critical response to President Trump’s suggestion that schoolteachers be given firearms to protect their classrooms from mass shooters. Trump’s statements were made in the wake of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last week which left 17 people dead.
“The president and others promoting arming teachers are delusional,” Steele tweeted on Friday morning. “Wake the hell up people. There was a uniformed, armed police officer on duty at Douglas H. S. and he did nothing. And you expect teachers to do his job? #ICallBS #cpac2018.”
Earlier in January, Steele called Trump racist after the president asked during a closed-door meeting with lawmakers why the United States was accepting so many immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and various African nations.
“At this point, the evidence is incontrovertible, it’s right there,” Steele said when asked by MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson whether the president was racist.
Despite the fallout from Walters’ comments this week, the president on Saturday morning attempted to play up his own record with the Black community, retweeting a post from conservative radio host Wayne Dupree which read, “This is what it’s all about! It’s ok 2 b black, conservative and love America and not vote Democrat! Freedom exists!”
Trump quoted Dupree’s tweet and added, “So true Wayne, and Lowest black unemployment in history!”
Black unemployment is no longer at a record low.
This article has been updated to include additional comments from former RNC chair Michael Steele and CPAC chair Matt Schlapp.