A Black Republican Navigates the Trump White House

As a congressional staff member, Mr. Smith once wore a hoodie in a demonstration on Capitol Hill protesting the death of Trayvon Martin. Now President Trump calls him “my star.”

In the days after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a white neighborhood watch volunteer, Ja’Ron Smith was among a group of congressional aides who pulled on hoodies and stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest.

The demonstration was a powerful statement: Mr. Martin, a Black teenager, had been wearing a hoodie when he was killed, and the aides were Black, Asian and Hispanic, Republicans as well as Democrats. Mr. Smith, the president of the Black Republican Congressional Staff Association, spoke of being racially profiled himself and said it was “a real issue in our country, and it comes from ignorance.”

Eight years later, Mr. Smith, 37, is the highest-ranking Black official in the Trump White House, a deputy assistant to a president who has threatened protesters calling for police reform and racial justice after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in police custody, and who stands accused of running a re-election campaign that in ways subtle and explicit appeals to white racism.

As President Trump has escalated those appeals, calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate,” attacking the Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace and defending the Confederate flag, Mr. Smith has emerged as a de facto spokesman on criminal justice and one of the authors of an executive order on policing for a White House where there are no Black advisers in the president’s inner circle. He has worked with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Mr. Trump has taken to calling him “my star” when they are together in meetings.

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Under President Trump, we are transforming our criminal justice system

  • U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Attorney General William Barr are meeting Wednesday with faith leaders and law enforcement officials in Columbia to talk about America’s criminal justice system. After an emotional month following the killing of George Floyd, it’s important to remember that we have made significant reforms to our system of justice in the past few years. Under President Trump, the American dream is achievable in new ways for formerly incarcerated Americans.

    Before the coronavirus pandemic, Americans were participating in the greatest economy in history. And despite the downturn from the virus, the job gains in the past two months are showing that the economy is fundamentally healthy — great news for every American, but particularly those coming out of prison and looking for jobs.

    Beyond an economy that benefits everyone, President Trump has focused specifically on inmates through the First Step Act, which he signed into law in 2018. The First Step Act reforms our criminal justice system, particularly in the area of mandatory minimum sentences. Championed by both Sen. Scott and Sen. Lindsey Graham, this law means nonviolent offenders are being given a second chance through earlier releases. Because of this law, thousands of former inmates are now home with their families and pursuing a better life.

    President Trump also has promoted education and hiring, helping to give former inmates true opportunities at a new life. His Education Department is helping more incarcerated individuals receive Pell Grants, so they can better prepare themselves to join the workforce and lead productive lives.

    As part of their efforts to implement the First Step Act, the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons launched a “Ready to Work” initiative, which is helping former prisoners connect with employers, meaning that newly freed Americans are getting jobs, not rejection letters. As Attorney General Barr said at the time, implementing the First Step Act “includes helping offenders successfully reintegrate into the community, a critical factor in preventing recidivism and, in turn, reducing the number of crime victims. Finding gainful employment is an important part of that process.”

    Even as he’s worked to help many nonviolent offenders through reduced sentences and successful reintegration into society, the president has been focused on making America safer. He revitalized Project Safe Neighborhoods, a nationwide initiative to bring together officials across government and law enforcement at every level to find ways to reduce violent crime.

    He also recently signed an executive order to reform the way police and communities interact in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd. This includes new requirements on police departments before they receive Justice Department grant funding, and means that police will start receiving training on deescalation techniques. This will help reduce instances of violence between police and the community members they serve.

    All of these actions are making a real difference. Since 2016, America’s violent crime rate and murder rate have both fallen.

    President Trump has been committed to fighting for forgotten Americans, and that includes those who have made mistakes along the way. Under this president, all Americans regardless of their past has a chance at a bright future of their own making. We are making the American dream of newly released individuals a reality.

    The Rev. Tony Foster is senior pastor at Restoration Worship Center in Greenwood.