Inside the Dizzying Effort to Pitch Trump to Black Voters

WASHINGTON — Nearly every week this spring, President Trump’s re-election team has held one of the most peculiar events of the 2020 online campaign: “Black Voices for Trump Real Talk.” It’s a dizzying effort by Mr. Trump’s black advisers to put their spin on his record — often with a hall-of-mirrors quality, as they push false claims about opponents while boosting a president who retweets racist material.

The most recent session, on Saturday night, was one of the most head-spinning yet. For an hour on a livestream, three black Republicans tried to portray former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as a racist, while ignoring decades of racially divisive behavior by Mr. Trump, from his remarks on the Central Park Five to birtherism to Charlottesville.

Katrina Pierson, a campaign adviser, led the discussion from her living room, wearing a white sweatshirt with a recent gaffe by Mr. Biden printed in block letters: “#YouAintBlack.” Another adviser, Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of Cincinnati, had a message for Democrats, saying, “Don’t believe your eyes and ears, that’s what they’re telling black folks.”

Using gimmicks like campaign swag emblazoned with the word “Woke,” Trump campaign officials are aiming for black millennials who they think may have no cultural or personal affinity for Mr. Biden, a 77-year-old white Democrat.

But the campaign’s chief pitch to black voters going into the 2020 presidential election — a lower unemployment rate among African-Americans — has eroded in the past few months. And the Trump campaign has a lot to ignore in terms of comments from its own candidate, who has, in the past, made remarks widely seen as racist; over the Memorial Day weekend, the president promoted posts from a racist and sexist Twitter feed. Just increasing Mr. Trump’s share of black voters by a few percentage points would be a major challenge that spin room-style efforts like the “Black Voices” events would be hard-pressed to solve.

Still, on Saturday night, the Trump surrogates were trying to make the most of Mr. Biden’s latest gaffe, hoping they could use the moment to drive down African-American turnout, the same way they used Hillary Clinton’s comment about “superpredators” as a cudgel against her in the 2016 presidential election.

Even from the captivity of his basement, and the limited exposure that comes with it, Mr. Biden last week had managed to deposit his foot directly into his mouth. “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” Mr. Biden said in an interview with Charlamagne Tha God, a host on “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally syndicated morning show popular with black millennials. Mr. Biden later apologized for the remark, saying he “shouldn’t have been so cavalier.”

The Trump campaign, which already had a “Black Voices for Trump” event on its online broadcast schedule, was poised for attack — a reminder that Mr. Biden will be confronting an opposing campaign with the resources to quickly amplify and capitalize on his mistakes. According to YouTube, more than 19,000 people tuned in to watch; it was not possible to tell where the viewers were from, their race or ethnicity or whether they were likely voters.

But the Trump campaign’s performance on Saturday night also showed that on issues of race, Trump advisers had no lines of attack, or policy arguments, to use against Mr. Biden that were not fiercely interrogated in the Democratic primary just months ago, when black voters breathed life back into the former vice president’s anemic campaign.

“At the end of the day, conversation reveals character,” T.W. Shannon, the former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said on the broadcast, conveniently ignoring Mr. Trump’s own command to four congresswomen of color to “go back” to countries where they came from, when three of them were born in the United States.

Mr. Trump’s own record did not deter his campaign from dedicating almost a full hour to slicing and dicing Mr. Biden’s three unfortunate words. They played Mr. Biden’s “you ain’t black” clip 22 times, including once in slow motion. The clip had already run 12 times when Ms. Pierson, the campaign adviser, told the audience that she was about to introduce them to the “latest dehumanizing comments” from Mr. Biden, and primed them — as if there were still any confusion about what the comment was — to “listen to this.” Again.

Democratic strategists said the clip was unlikely to resonate with young black voters the way Mrs. Clinton’s superpredator comment had.

“This doesn’t feel like an analogous opportunity in any way,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, noting that Mr. Biden had apologized immediately.

Charlamagne, the “Breakfast Club” host, said in an interview that the Biden gaffe was unlikely to move any black voter and that Mr. Trump had no shot at winning over his vote. But, he added, it wasn’t impossible to think that some black voters would be open to hearing Mr. Trump’s pitch.

“People are desperate, disenchanted with government, their conditions haven’t changed under either party,” Charlamagne said. One might imagine Mr. Trump making inroads by “presenting some type of economic justice plan for black America,” he added.

Mr. Garin said it would be a steep hill to climb.

“They’re working to erode voting rights in a way that people notice,” he said, referring to Mr. Trump and his Republican allies. “If you take Biden’s comment, compare it to everything else that is happening, with coronavirus, the economy, the attack on voting rights, the tides are very much against Trump with African-Americans.”

The Trump campaign wants to turn that tide, partly with its “Black Voices for Trump” events that it holds online every seven to 10 days. The show, hosted by Ms. Pierson with a rotating cast of guests, typically finds a way to amplify the White House message of the day and drive home the same talking points about the black unemployment rate.

One episode in April, for instance, was dedicated to explaining how “President Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is protecting jobs for black Americans,” without acknowledging that the black community has been hardest hit by the virus, or that black-owned businesses have often had a harder time getting access to emergency federal loans.

On Saturday night’s episode, the “Black Voices” crew came ready to unload on Mr. Biden, but when the cameras started rolling they had no new argument to make against him.

“I guess Obama ain’t black now either,” Ms. Pierson said, noting that in 2016, former President Barack Obama encouraged Mrs. Clinton to run instead of Mr. Biden — wildly misinterpreting Mr. Biden’s comment.

Mr. Garin, the Democratic pollster, said he thought the broadcasts were more telling about the Trump campaign’s resources than its chances of actually winning over black voters. “I don’t think they get very much out of it,” he said. “They have a lot of money to spend, but it doesn’t mean that you spend it well.”