White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to answer questions about the number of black staffers working in the White House on Wednesday, saying only that the administration “value[d] diversity.”
The comments follow a heated back and forth between President Trump and former public liaison director Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was fired from the administration in December, and who has recently been making the rounds to promote her new book, Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House.
“Omarosa…was the highest ranking African American staffer in the [White House]. No staffer has been appointed at that level since her absence,” a reporter asked Wednesday. “Can you tell us exactly how many African-Americans there are in this building? Is it a priority for the administration to reflect the diversity of the country?”
Sanders responded by dodging the question entirely.
“As I addressed yesterday, we value diversity, not just at the White House, but throughout the entire administration, and we’re going to continue trying to diversify this staff,” she said. “We have a large number of diverse staffers from various backgrounds, both race, religion, gender.”
Pressed again for an exact number, Sanders threw the question back to the press.
“I’m not going to do a count — the same way I’m not going to do a sit-down and count up the [number of black] staffers that are in your news organizations,” she said.
“We would love to diversify our staff and continue to do so. We do think it’s important. We’re going to continue to work to make that happen,” she added.
Sanders’ comments come days after the president excoriated Manigault Newman on Twitter, following the release of her book, in which she claimed she had heard Trump use the n-word during his time hosting The Apprentice, and that there was an audio recording to prove it.
“Wacky Omarosa, who got fired 3 times on the Apprentice, now got fired for the last time. She never made it, never will,” Trump tweeted Monday. “People in the White House hated her. She was vicious, but not smart. …While I know it’s ‘not presidential’ to take on a lowlife like Omarosa, and while I would rather not be doing so, this is a modern day form of communication and I know the Fake News Media will be working overtime to make even Wacky Omarosa look legitimate as possible.”
Trump also claimed former Apprentice producer Mark Burnett had called to assure him no such tape existed, and that he didn’t “have that word” in his vocabulary.
A day later, the president took things a step further, slamming the former White House staffer and calling her a “dog.”
“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out,” he tweeted. “Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!”
The White House has struggled to contain the fallout from Manigault Newman’s book, as well as subsequent claims that then-candidate Trump knew about WikiLeaks’ plan to release Hillary Clinton’s emails before it happened, a detail for which Manigault Newman provided no proof in her book. The former staffer also claimed White House chief of staff John Kelly, who dismissed her, had threatened to damage her reputation if she talked about her time with the administration publicly.
Sanders attempted to do damage control earlier this week, fielding questions about Trump’s alleged use of the racial slur in an audio recording, and stating she had never heard him use the term herself.
“I can’t guarantee anything,” she said, responding to reporters who had asked her to confirm no such tape existed. “But I can tell you that the president addressed this directly. I can tell you that I never heard it.”
She added, “I haven’t been in every single room. I can tell you the president has addressed this directly.”
On Sunday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was also faced with questions about diversity in the White House, during an interview on ABC’s This Week.
“Who now…is the most prominent, high-level [Black] adviser on the West Wing staff, [with Manigault Newman gone]?” ABC News host Jonathan Karl asked Conway.
“African American?” Conway responded after a pause. “I would say, well — first of all, you’re totally not covering the fact that our secretary of Housing and Urban Development [is] world-renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson. …The president works with Secretary Carson every day.”
Pressed to name a black aide on “the White House staff right now,” Conway cited someone named Ja’Ron Smith, a mid-level aide who works in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey later noted.