The West Wing is expected to lose one of its most prominent minority aides in the coming months, opening President Donald Trump’s inner circle up to new scrutiny as he continues to stoke racial tensions.
Deputy press secretary Raj Shah, an Indian-American, is expected to step down following the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, according to multiple people familiar with his plans. He has told associates that he only planned to stay in the White House for 18 months, but extended his tenure to lead communications on the Kavanaugh nomination. Shah declined to comment.
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Shah, who is among the dwindling number of original staffers remaining in the West Wing, is widely seen as a stabilizing presence in an administration known for chaos.
His resignation would follow the departure of two other minority White House aides: communications staffer Steven Cheung, who was one of the last remaining veterans of the Trump campaign to work in the White House, and Helen Aguirre Ferré, director of media affairs.
Trump will still have a handful of senior aides who are minorities including director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp, who is Cuban-American, and deputy chief of staff Zachary Fuentes. But the overwhelming share of people who advise the president on a daily basis, from his most trusted senior staffers to many of his Cabinet secretaries to his former campaign staff, are white.
Of the 55 highest-earning White House staffers, POLITICO was able to identify only a half-dozen who are not white. Along with Schlapp, that includes director of management and administration Marcia Lee Kelly, who is Korean-American, and Joyce Meyer, a Filipino-American who is a senior member of the legislative affairs team.
There are several minority aides among the more junior White House staffers who don’t earn top salaries of $150,000 a year or more and weren’t included in POLITICO’s analysis.
“Having diversity in a leadership team is clearly necessary for top performance,” said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit that advised the Trump transition team as it set up the government. “The proverbial group think, which is a real problem, becomes less of one when you have a diverse team.”
He added: “It’s not something that’s going to get better by accident. It’s something that gets better when people at the top prioritize it.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Friday about the diversity of its staff.
Aides pointed to Trump’s outreach to black pastors, as well as statistics that show black and Hispanic unemployment is at an all-time low, figures that the president regularly cites in speeches and in tweets.
In a post on Friday night, Trump invoked the music star Kanye West, who has expressed admiration for the president: “Thank you to Kanye West and the fact that he is willing to tell the TRUTH. One new and great FACT – African American unemployment is the lowest ever recorded in the history of our Country. So honored by this. Thank you Kanye for your support. It is making a big difference!”
Yet the president has continued to inflame racial tensions, even after coming under fire last year for his response to the deadly clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump has repeatedly criticized NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racism, most recently on Friday.
Former White House official and “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman is also leveling allegations in a new book that Trump used the word “n—–” in private conversations. The White House denied the allegations.
Manigault Newman, who was fired last December, was the most prominent black staffer in the White House, and has spoken publicly about the lack of diversity in the West Wing. She said in a 2017 interview with ABC News that it was “very lonely” working alongside mostly white aides in the Trump White House.
“We have a really diverse team across the board at the White House,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters late last year after Manigault Newman was fired.
Many White House staffers and others close to the president have grown to detest Manigault Newman, who they believe is out to sell books and boost her own profile. George Conway, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s husband, dismissed another claim from Manigault Newman’s book that Trump used racial epithets in reference to Conway, who is half Filipino. Conway, who has sometimes been critical of Trump, called the allegation “not credible” and “ridiculous” on Twitter on Friday.
And GOP pollster Frank Luntz denied on Friday that he heard Trump use the word “n—–,” as Manigault Newman claimed she heard in the book. “Not only is this flat-out false (I’ve never heard such a thing), but Omarosa didn’t even make an effort to call or email me to verify. Very shoddy work,” he wrote on Twitter.
Trump has several outspoken black defenders, including Pastor Darrell Scott, who recently called Trump “the most pro-black president that we’ve had in our lifetime” during an interview on Fox News.
Other Trump allies echoed that assessment.
“I one thousand percent stand behind his comment,” said Bruce Levell, a prominent Republican businessman in Georgia and the executive director of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump.
“I don’t have a motive to not be truthful. There’s absolutely no doubt in my heart that this president loves all types of people,” added Levell, who has talked to Trump throughout the campaign and his presidency.
Asked about the lack of racial diversity in the top ranks of the White House, Levell said, “The president is very aggressive on getting the best talent to run the nation and I think, respectfully, most people of color would rather have good quality people that would be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money than worry about quotas.”
But many activists and civil rights groups disagree vehemently with Levell and Scott.
“He’s demonstrated — both in words and in deeds and in policy implementations — racist tendencies,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a recent interview with POLITICO. “Therefore, I have no other conclusion but to say he is a racist.”
Trump has faced accusations of racism for years. Even before announcing his most recent run for president, Trump asserted falsely that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Throughout the presidential campaign, he repeatedly used divisive rhetoric to rile up his conservative base, describing Mexicans immigrants as rapists and calling in 2015 for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Manigault Newman’s allegations come one year after protesters and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville. During remarks to reporters soon after the rally, Trump drew an equivalence between the white supremacists who chanted racist slogans during the rally and the counter-protesters who opposed them.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said, infuriating Republicans and Democrats alike and setting off one of the lowest points of his presidency.
On Sunday, white nationalists will rally near the White House, marking Charlottesville’s one-year anniversary.
“The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division,” Trump wrote on Twitter Saturday morning. “We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
Manigault Newman wrote in her book that she never personally heard Trump use slurs. But she wrote she was told by multiple people that Trump was caught on tape using the word while filming “Celebrity Apprentice.” In an interview with NPR, she contradicted what she wrote in the book, asserting that she has heard the alleged tape. “Hearing it changed everything for me,” she said.
“Instead of telling the truth about all the good President Trump and his administration are doing to make America safe and prosperous, this book is riddled with lies and false accusations,” Sanders said in a statement on Friday. “It’s sad that a disgruntled former White House employee is trying to profit off these false attacks, and even worse that the media would now give her a platform, after not taking her seriously when she had only positive things to say about the President during her time in the administration.”