Trump has a rocky relationship with Black voters. He's trying to change it.

Last updated on April 20, 2024

Months before his criminal trial started, former President Donald Trump stood before Black conservatives in South Carolina and made a direct appeal to African American voters with a provocative — and, critics said, racist — theme: Like you, I’m unfairly persecuted by the criminal justice system.

It was just the beginning of a highly calculated effort by Trump to cut into President Joe Biden’s standing with a constituency that historically has been among the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting blocs.

Three officials with the Trump campaign outlined to POLITICO the former president’s strategy to attract Black voters throughout the trial and beyond, revealing an in-depth look into their game plan as they ramp up campaigning ahead of November.

According to Trump’s advisers, the former president and his campaign will use his legal troubles — and issues of race in New York more broadly — to appeal to Black voters by suggesting that Trump, a 77-year-old white man from a family of privilege and with a history of offensive rhetoric, is beset by the same injustices that afflict Black Americans.

He’ll make targeted pitches to voters of color during campaign-style stops in and around the city, including in historically Black neighborhoods like Harlem. And they say he’ll attempt to turn the city’s migrant crisis into a wedge issue to attract Black voters bitter at local Democratic officials who approved millions in resources to support newly arriving immigrants instead of their communities.

“The Biden administration has made a deliberate choice to put illegal immigrants’ interests in front of the interests of the American people,” James Blair, political director for the Trump campaign, told POLITICO. “And Black voters, like every other group of voters in America, are enraged by this.”

Perhaps no politician in modern America has been able to play as effectively on voters’ anxieties on issues of race, ethnic rivalries and cultural grievances than Trump. From calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals to saying there was “blame on both sides” after white supremacists and neo-Nazis engaged in violent protests in Charlottesville, the former president has consistently appealed to white, male and less educated base voters on issues of ethnicity, often receiving widespread backlash from Democrats and his own party.

But in recent polls, he has made some inroads with Black voters. And his campaign is now deliberately targeting them in a more sophisticated approach than he displayed early in his political career, using his ongoing trial in New York as the staging ground.

Black men especially are a key constituency that his advisers see as gettable and slipping away from Biden. According to a Wall Street Journal poll this month, some 30 percent of Black men in the seven key swing states said they would definitely or probably vote for Trump for president.

Dissatisfaction with Biden among this voting bloc stems from his handling of the economy and on immigration. If those figures hold, it would mark a nearly threefold increase of support among Black men for Trump, who received just 12 percent of the vote from Black men four years ago, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters conducted on Election Day and the days immediately preceding it.

During a stop at a bodega in the heart of Harlem last week, Trump railed against Biden’s border policies as well as New York Democrats for allocating millions of dollars in rental and food assistance to people who only recently entered the country.

The stakes for Trump — and Biden — are enormous. Even a marginal improvement by Trump with Black voters could tilt the outcome in closely contested states in November.

Trump has already started employing this strategy. During a stop at a bodega in the heart of Harlem last week, the former president railed against Biden’s border policies as well as New York Democrats for allocating millions of dollars in rental and food assistance to people who only recently entered the country.

“They’ve poured in and taken over the parks, they took over your hotels, they take over everything, it’s no good,” said Trump, who also mentioned a New York City program established in January providing $53 million in prepaid debit cards to help tens of thousands of migrants in the city pay for temporary housing and food.

“And you know what they’ve done?” he said. “They’ve destroyed so many people, the African American community is now not getting jobs, migrants are taking their jobs that are here illegally.”

Trump’s rhetoric on the immigration issue is especially potent. Tens of thousands of migrants, from Latin American countries and elsewhere, have been used as political pawns in recent years by conservative-leaning states. Those migrants, many hoping to be granted asylum, have either been bussed or traveled to liberal-leaning cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, creating tension with Black residents who feel marginalized and the elected leaders of color who run those cities.

During a contentious Chicago City Council meeting last summer, for example, a Black alderwoman, Jeanette Taylor, broke down in tears during a debate over whether to transfer $51 million in city funds to assist migrants.

“I’m so tired of, when it’s a crisis for everybody else, we go, ‘We gotta do something.’ But, when we’re having this violence in the Black community, nothing gets said or nothing gets done,” Taylor said.

Yet activists also labeled her a “sellout” and “traitor” when she voted to approve the transfer of funds.

Lynne Patton, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said in an interview that the campaign would be “foolish not to take advantage of the fact that Trump is in the state of New York, in the city of New York, which has been disproportionately impacted by illegal immigration since Biden took office.”

Critics of the former president however highlight reports that since Trump’s overhaul of the Republican National Committee, minority-themed outreach centers that were launched under previous RNC leadership have shuttered. It’s evidence, they say, that Trump’s attempts to connect with voters of color is nothing but a facade.

Blair laughed off those characterizations.

“Having an office is not indicative of outreach,” Blair said. “They don’t want you to be talking about the fact that 62 percent of Black voters say immigration and border security is going in the wrong direction and want you to talk about office space.”

Trump officials admit they have to be strategic in how they deploy Trump, since the New York trial will drastically limit his ability to campaign. The only day the trial won’t regularly be in session is Wednesday, though Trump will usually be free on weekends to fundraise and hold events. On Saturday, he’s scheduled to hold a rally in North Carolina.

Some Black conservatives in Georgia criticized Trump’s visit to Chick-fil-A as pandering rather than authentic outreach to the community.

Yet Trump’s attempts to reach out to Black voters can at times seem manufactured or clumsy. Earlier this year, the former president released a Trump sneaker, which a Fox News pundit hailed as “connecting with Black America.” More recently, the former president’s campaign tried to create a viral moment on social media in April when Trump visited a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Atlanta and was greeted by Black fast food workers. Videos posted online showed one well-wisher, a Black woman named Michaelah Montgomery, telling him: “I don’t care what the media tells you, Mr. Trump, we support you,” before walking up to him and giving him a hug.

The Chick-fil-A is located on en route from the airport to the Fulton County jail where the former president took his infamous mug shot in a Georgia criminal case, where he is accused of engaging in a scheme to subvert that state’s election in 2020.

Some Black conservatives in Georgia, however, criticized Trump’s visit as pandering rather than authentic outreach to the community. Black conservative radio talk show host Sonnie Johnson called it a “photo op” on social media while Felecia Killings, who runs a conservative think tank that specializes in Black outreach in Atlanta, derided it as trite.

“This is an unserious moment right now for Trump and Black outreach,” she said in an interview.

Trump world, however, takes it very seriously. Last week, Donald Trump Jr. sat down for a wide-ranging interview with hip hop podcaster and internet personality DJ Akademiks, where the former president’s son touted how his father would help Black Americans if elected in November. He also compared the search by federal agents on Mar-a-Lago to the recent raids of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ homes in Miami and Los Angeles, pointing out that both were “bullshit.”

“I’m not saying our justice system has always been fair,” he continued. “If they can do this to Trump … who wants to do it to?”

It was similar to Trump’s message to Black Republicans in South Carolina last February, where he sought to connect with the audience by highlighting his own problems with the criminal justice system.

“Our message to the Black community in this election will be a very simple one,” Trump said. “If you want strong borders, safe neighborhoods, rising wages, good jobs, great education and the return of the American Dream, then congratulations, you’re a Republican.”