WASHINGTON — The presidents of historically black colleges and universities are nearly done with their trip here to the nation’s capital — including a quickly arranged meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office.
Trump, according to a half dozen people in the room, said that the HBCU leaders made up the largest group he'd seen in the room.
“You people are doing an amazing job,” four people in the room recalled Trump saying. Two of them said Trump repeated the complimentary refrain three times. They all said the comments raised eyebrows, and it was discussed afterward even as others just said it was Trump being Trump.
It was “very insensitive,” one of the college presidents said, but added that while the phrase irked him and his colleagues, it also struck him as “very Trump-ish.”
One college president from a Southern state said they heard the president make the “you people” comment but said that he was hardened to such sayings after growing up in the Jim Crow South.
“I've heard a lot worse than that, and I mean a lot worse,” the college president from the Southern state told BuzzFeed News. “I'm sure if you're from the North or whatever you might be offended by something like that.”
“I was waiting on him to say something worse.”
Asked specifically about the "you people" comment, White House adviser Omarosa Manigault called the characterization of the meeting false, and said it was “the most ridiculous spin I have heard about this historic meeting where 69 HBCU president were invited to a meet and greet with the president of the United States.”
Trump “was praising the amazing work of HBCU presidents… he was laughing and shaking hands and meeting each of the presidents,” she wrote in an email.
A half dozen college presidents and HBCU advocates spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that their names be withheld because they feared reprisals from the White House.
The HBCU officials are currently seeking added support from the administration amid sagging enrollments, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of opportunity and tools for students to be more competitive in the current economy. The visit — and quick photo opportunity — has drawn scrutiny; Trump is viewed very unfavorably by black Americans, according to polling in recent weeks.
Nearly all of the college presidents acknowledged the opportunity possibly offered them the bounce needed to bring their priorities to Capitol Hill.
“The people who have been here eight years or longer know that this is not an opportunity that we got under Obama,” one of the college presidents said. “So was he the most graceful? No, but we all know there's something to be said about this president that we’re here.”
Asked about the Oval Office experience, another college president said he had not enjoyed it much because they were hustled in and out so quickly.
“It seemed like that's all he had to talk about, how crowded the Oval Office was,” he said. “Doesn't that sound like him?”