More details about the closed-door meeting Donald Trump held with civil rights activists days before his inauguration in January 2017 had surfaced, including a moment when he told Martin Luther King III he listens to the Black community "better" than the son of Martin Luther King Jr. The comment reportedly stunned transition officials and King's guests. One transition team member told The Independent they were "so embarrassed" by the remark.
The Presidential Transition Team organized the meeting between Trump and King, the late Harry Wachtel's son William Wachtel and Riverside Church pastor Dr. Rev. James Forbes to show Trump reaching out to the Black community. One Trump aide described the meeting as "most disastrous outreach meeting" in the "history" of presidential transitions. The audio and transcript from the session shown to The Independent made it clear that Trump spent more time on his grievances than listening to the activists' concerns.
"I listen better to the African-American people than anybody else. Anybody else in this room," Trump told King and the other activists. King and William Wachtel pitched Trump on their idea to add photographs to Social Security cards for voter identification, but Trump had a different idea for the proposal. He believed it could be used to stop undocumented immigrants from voting. "How do you feel… about people coming over the border and voting where they're not citizens?" Trump asked them, later claiming "thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people" illegally voted in California and Florida. This claim has been widely debunked.
Trump also asked the group about Rep. John Lewis, as the meeting took place after Lewis made headlines for refusing to attend Trump's inauguration. "I got treated very badly by John Lewis… I always liked him but then all of the sudden he came out with this thing, and of course, sleepy eyes Chuck Todd plays it up, you know, big," Trump said, referring to the NBC News host. Trump later said the movie "really backfired" on Lewis because "what he said is very bad in terms of our democracy."
"I was so embarrassed," one transition team member told The Independent. "Who in their sober, right mind would say to Martin Luther King III, whose father gave his life fighting for equality for people of color, would say they did more — as in more than giving up your life — for black people than anybody else?" The staffer said they believed Trump "forgot who the heck" he was talking to.
The audio from the meeting was shared by Tootsie Warhol, a former lawyer and then-chief of staff for William Wachtel. He recorded the meeting on his iPhone and also shared the audio with Politico. In the segment, Politico published, Trump said it was "great" for him that Black turnout was low in the 2016 presidential election. A former administration official told The Independent the meeting with King was a botched opportunity to build a relationship with civil rights leaders.
"The President is grateful for his support among Black Americans, and their many contributions to helping make America great," deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said in response to the leaked recording. "Donald Trump's record as a private citizen and as president has been one of fighting for inclusion and advocating for the equal treatment of all. Anyone who suggests otherwise is only seeking to sew (sic) division and ignore the President's work for underserved communities."