Dozens of black pastors pressed Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Monday to address what some called his use of racially charged rhetoric, with several describing a meeting that became tense at times as attendees raised concerns about his blunt language.
While some left the gathering at Trump’s skyscraper in midtown Manhattan with hopes their message had resonated, Trump said afterward he had no plans to change his approach, which he said had taken him to “first position in every single poll.”
“The beautiful thing about the meeting is that they didn’t really ask me to change the tone,” Trump said. “I think they really want to see victory, because ultimately it is about, we want to win and we want to win together.”
But several pastors who met with the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star, who has held a consistent lead in preference polls of GOP voters for several months due in large part to his aggressive style of campaigning, told a different story.
Bishop George Bloomer, who traveled to the gathering from North Carolina, said he arrived in New York with concerns about “the racial comments that have been made and the insensitive comments that have been made,” including an incident earlier this month in which a black protester was roughed up by Trump supporters at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama.
Trump said after the incident, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
“I asked him: ‘Are you a racist? People are saying that about you,'” Bloomer said. “If you are seeking the African-American community to support you, at the least, you’re not helping with these kind of things that are going on.”
Bloomer said that he told Trump that “if he wants to have our ear as a community, to at least tone down the rhetoric some kind of way, tone it down. And he said that he would.”
Pastor Al Morgan of Launch Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina, said part of the group’s discussion focused on whether Trump should maybe lighten up a bit.
“What he said was that he would take that into consideration,” Morgan said. “So the thing was trying to be who he is, so you have to remain true to yourself. And, in his defense, that’s gotten him where he is. So the thing is, how do you convey a person’s heart with their personality? That’s the dilemma.”
Trump is seeking to replace President Barack Obama, who won two terms in the White House by bringing together a coalition of young people, single women and black and Hispanic voters.
Democrats typically have an enormous edge with African-American voters, with Republican presidential candidates faring poorly among minorities in the past two elections. In 2012, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks, 93 percent of blacks voted to re-elect Obama. In 2008, he won the vote of 95 percent of blacks.
But Trump has been courting the support of evangelical black clergy members as he works to broaden his appeal in a crowded Republican field. Monday’s meeting was originally promoted by his campaign as an endorsement event, in which he would receive the backing of 100 black evangelical and religious leaders.
But many of those invited to the meet-and-greet objected over the weekend to that description, saying they had instead accepted the invitation because they wanted to meet with Trump to challenge him about what he’s said as a candidate.
Trump kicked off his campaign with a speech in which he said some Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, and recently drew criticism for retweeting an image of inaccurate statistics that vastly overrepresented the number of whites killed by blacks, among other errors.
In a letter published by Ebony magazine, more than 100 black religious leaders wrote that “Trump’s racially inaccurate, insensitive and incendiary rhetoric should give those charged with the care of the spirits and souls of black people great pause.”
They also expressed concern that the meeting Monday would “give Trump the appearance of legitimacy among those who follow your leadership and respect your position as clergy.”
But Pastor Victor Couzens, from Cincinnati, Ohio, said that as a leader in his community, he felt an obligation to attend the meeting to hear what Trump had to say.
“It’s very unfortunate the way he has talked to not just the African-American community, but things he’s said about women and Mexicans and Muslims. It’s very discouraging,” Couzens said. “But what’s more discouraging than the things that he has said is the fact that in the face of him saying all of these things, he continues to surge in the polls.”
Plans for a post-meeting news conference were initially canceled, but then unexpectedly revived by a few participants. They met with reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower, with the building’s namesake uncharacteristically waiting patiently for his turn to speak.
While there was no wide-ranging endorsement from the group as a whole, some of those who attended expressed their full-throated support for Trump.
“What we were able to do today was allow people to see his heart for themselves and to make up their own minds about him,” said Darrell Scott, the senior pastor of New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who helped to organize the meeting. “They find out that he’s not the person that the media has depicted him to be.”