President Trump is capable of many a miracle. On Wednesday, after just 12 days on the job, he raised the dead.
Addressing a small group of African American aides and supporters to kick off Black History Month, the new president not only offered pro forma praise for the usual suspects – Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. – but also singled out somebody who recently caught his attention.
“Frederick Douglass,” Trump said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Amazing job, Frederick! Great work!
It’s unlikely anybody could recognize Douglass today, because he died in 1895. And though Trump may not have noticed it previously, Douglass has long occupied a revered place in American history: escaped slave, iconic abolitionist, world-renowned author and publisher and counselor to presidents.
But Trump’s awkwardness was not limited to placing Douglass in the present perfect tense. He also declared: “During this month, we honor the tremendous history of the African Americans throughout our country – throughout the world, if you really think about it, right?”
Well, if you really think about it, being African American is, by definition, limited to Americans. But no matter. He was on a roll.
Trump said he’d “gotten a real glimpse” of African Americans when Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and lone black person named to Trump’s cabinet, took him to “places that I wasn’t so familiar with” during the campaign. Trump’s judgment: “They’re incredible people.”
It brought to mind Trump’s Cinco de Mayo tweet of a taco bowl and the words “I love Hispanics!”
Neither Latinos nor African Americans are loving Trump back in large numbers. The Senate Judiciary Committee marked Black History Month by approving the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general; Sessions was once rejected for a federal judgeship for perceived racism.
Trump’s nascent presidency has also brought about a revival of bogus claims about widespread voting fraud, which has been used as an excuse to restrict voting rights. And Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is already opposed by some civil rights groups who fear a further clampdown on ballot access.
Trump earned 8 percent of the black vote in November after a racially charged campaign in which there were sometimes violent clashes with black demonstrators at his events and he appealed to minority voters by saying: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
In fairness, Trump has struggled so far to find the right tone regardless of his audience. When he fired acting attorney general Sally Yates this week for refusing to enforce the travel ban, the presidential statement was a campaign-style jab: Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice” and “is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
Commemorating Black History Month, Trump had a tough act to follow. President Barack Obama delivered passionate remarks to adoring audiences at such events. “From our earliest days, black history has been American history,” he said last year, recalling “the slaves who quarried the stone to build this White House.”
Obama went on at length, then added: “There’s a gap – there always will be – between who we are and the ‘perfect union,’ that ideal that we see. But what makes us exceptional, what makes us Americans is that we fight wars and pass laws, and we march, and we organize unions, and we stage protests, and that gap gets smaller over time.”
That gap seems larger now. Trump’s Black History Month celebration was a carefully choreographed assembly of black administration officials and Trump supporters. It was billed as a “listening session,” but the press was brought in only for Trump’s talking. He was seated between Carson and Omarosa Manigault, one of his former contestants on “The Apprentice” and now a White House official.
Trump had papers in front of him, but he didn’t rely on them. He did what came naturally. He attacked the press. He complained, again, about an erroneous report saying a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Turning to pro-Trump CNN contributor Paris Dennard, he said: “I don’t watch CNN so I don’t get to see you as much as I want to. I don’t like watching fake news. But Fox has treated me very nice – wherever Fox is, thank you.”
Amazing work, Fox! But why don’t you invite Frederick Douglass on air more often?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.