Trump Focuses on Black Economic Gains and Support for Historically Black Colleges

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday made a pitch for African-American support to an audience of black educators, emphasizing the economic gains that have been made since he became president and glossing over a summer of racial taunts aimed at Democratic lawmakers of color.

Speaking to a National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week conference in downtown Washington, Mr. Trump seemed to make the case that economic gains that benefited African-Americans would prove more important to voters of color than any of his tweets.

“When I’m on that debate stage, these are pretty good numbers,” Mr. Trump said, after ticking off what he claimed was the lowest African-American poverty rate in history. “Who’s going to beat these numbers? Please tell me.”

Mr. Trump, whose approval rating among black voters is 10 percent, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, compared with a 48 percent approval rating among white voters, called his administration’s commitment to supporting historically black colleges and universities, known as H.B.C.U.s, “bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration, by far.”

And he noted that his administration was undoing “ruinous trade policies that devastated millions of hard-working families and inflicted deep economic pain on many African-American communities.”

Since the beginning of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the administration has, in fact, made an effort to support historically black schools, increasing investment in their programs by 14.3 percent. “The fierce dedication to strengthening H.B.C.U.s is a core part of my administration’s unwavering focus on the project of national renewal,” Mr. Trump said.

Leaders of the schools at first eyed Mr. Trump’s promise of support for their institutions with some skepticism and faced blowback in the opening days of the Trump administration for meeting with the president in the Oval Office. During the 2017 meeting, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, tucked her feet under her as she perched on the couch in a childlike posture that was criticized as signaling disrespect. Ms. Conway later said she was simply positioning herself to take a group photograph.

Harry Williams, the chief executive and president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents the nearly 300,000 students who attend 47 publicly funded historically black colleges and universities, medical schools and law schools, was in the room for that meeting.“That was a photo op,” he said.

“We have seen some very positive gains as it relates to supporting our institutions,” he said. “If you were there today, you heard the reaction from the audience, it was very respectful and cordial. You’re not going to applaud if nothing is happening.”

Mr. Williams said the most important policy change by the administration was the restoration of year-round Pell grants, which help low-income students attend school in the summer.

The Trump administration’s outreach to black schools has been overseen by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who has also spearheaded the White House’s efforts to pass criminal justice reform.

Mr. Kushner also serves as a senior adviser on Mr. Trump’s 2020 campaign, and he has told the president that passage of the First Step Act, as the criminal reform legislation is known, would help him broaden his appeal to African-American voters in 2020.

But Mr. Trump’s support for criminal justice reform and educational institutions that traditionally have been paths to advancement for black students has been muddied by his own racial comments, as well as his decades-long pattern of exploiting racial tensions.

Mr. Trump has made Twitter attacks against lawmakers of color, from the so-called squad of Democratic congresswomen to Representative Elijah J. Cummings, central to his re-election strategy.

Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Cummings’s majority-black district in Baltimore during the summer as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”

He also called on the four Democrats of the squad — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — to leave the United States “right now” and said that if they “hate our country,” they could go back to their “broken and crime-infested” countries.

Of the four women he attacked, only Ms. Omar was born outside of the United States.

Mr. Trump made no reference to those fights in his remarks on Tuesday, or about how he labeled lawmakers like Mr. Cummings as racists when he was attacked.

Mr. Trump is scheduled to visit Baltimore, where Republican House members are holding their annual retreat, on Thursday, his first visit to the city since his string of insults over the summer.