WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Kanye West embraced President Donald Trump literally and figuratively Thursday during a White House meeting intended to address the economic and social challenges facing African American communities that promptly veered into a wide-ranging one-man show for the rapper.
Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and seated alongside former NFL player Jim Brown, Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and others in the Oval Office, West extolled Trump’s virtues and explained he was drawn to the president’s “male energy.”
"You made a Superman cape for me,” West said, referring to his MAGA hat.
A White House spokesperson said beforehand the working lunch would be about:
President Trump’s historic work to benefit all Americans such as urban revitalization, the creation of Opportunity Zones, new workforce training programs, record highs in African American employment, the creation of manufacturing jobs, ideas from his meeting with African American pastors, potential future clemencies, and addressing the massive violent crime surge in Chicago.
The portion of the meeting open to the media was more freewheeling, with West delivering monologues to the assembled press on gender, race, North Korea, his mental health, and the president’s “hero’s journey.”
“You are tasting a fine wine that has multiple notes to it. You better play 4-D chess with me like it's ‘Minority Report,’ cause it ain't that simple. It's complex,” the rapper told reporters. He disputed reports that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, insisting instead he was just sleep-deprived.
“He’s a smart cookie,” Trump said at one point. “He gets it.”
West has signaled support for Trump sporadically over the last two years. Soon after the 2016 election, he told a concert audience he did not vote but he would have voted for Trump if he did, and the men met at Trump Tower during the transition. Earlier this year, West referred to Trump as his “brother” in a tweet that also praised the president for his “dragon energy.”
Amid the latest controversy over his praise for Trump in an unaired speech after a “Saturday Night Live” taping, West deleted his social media accounts last week because “he realized his rants were becoming unhealthy,” a source told People. His recent vocal support for Trump has been accompanied by some bizarre statements on other topics.
"Black man in America, supposed to keep what you’re feeling inside right now,” West said during his “SNL” rant. “All those Democrats. You know, it’s like the plan they did, uh, to take their fathers out the home and promote welfare. Does anybody know about that? That’s a Democratic plan.”
The following day, he tweeted, “We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment,” referring to the constitutional amendment that ended slavery. West later attempted to explain to TMZ that he meant it should be amended rather than abolished.
“What I need 'SNL' and liberals to improve on is, if he don't look good, we don't look good. He has to be the freshest, the flyest, have the flyest planes. He has to look good!" West said Thursday after showing the president a photo of a hydrogen-powered plane.
Going full MAGA has spurred a harsh backlash against the rapper from fans and fellow celebrities.
“A lot of times I don't think he's done a lot of the work and the research to really understand what's going on. I feel like a lot of times he presents opinions that are a little bit undercooked,” John Legend told CNBC Wednesday.
Some in the media preemptively dismissed the meeting and disparaged West. CNN commentators referred to him as the “token negro of the Trump administration” and “what happens when negroes don’t read.”
“It’s not surprising that these influential black figures malign any kind of outreach to the Trump administration. Perhaps they fear what these two forces together might accomplish for the black community: greater economic success and recognition by black America that its allegiance to progressive politicians has outlived its usefulness,” claimed Patrice Lee Onwuka, a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum, in a Fox News op-ed.
Experts see other reasons why West’s pro-Trump push has drawn such disdain.
“The trouble with Kanye and this president is Mr. West doesn’t have any real expertise or long history of advocacy with regard to issues the black community feels are important,” said Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.
West, who was raised in Chicago, has taken an interest in addressing the city’s problems in the past, but his recent public statements have shown little understanding of the complex issues Trump invited him to discuss.
“It looks like tokenism or, worse, it looks like the president is essentially thumbing his nose at the community and people of all races who take these issues of mass incarceration seriously,” Tillery added.
In a country where the president is strongly opposed by a large swath of the population and the vast majority of the Hollywood and rap communities, embracing Trump inevitably ignites partisan fury.
“Anyone who steps into Trump’s corner is going to take a lot of flak from the mainstream media, from social media, so that’s not a surprise at all,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant who teaches at Boston University.
Thursday’s meeting was ostensibly about criminal justice reform, and advocates were optimistic that, if nothing else, it would place a much-needed focus on an important subject. Though West’s soliloquys strayed far afield from the topic, the event commanded national attention from beginning to end.
“Anybody who has the president’s ear and is willing to put in a good word for criminal justice reform is a positive thing in our view,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, prior to the meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday he plans to bring a Jared Kushner-backed criminal justice reform package to the floor for a vote after the midterms. Advocacy organizations were hoping the high-profile lunch would feed the momentum behind the effort to get bipartisan legislation to the president’s desk.
“Such reforms have wide and deep bipartisan support among people from all walks of life, from conservative luminaries such as Rick Perry and Jim DeMint to celebrities like Kanye West and Jim Brown. When these stars choose to shine their light on these issues, it can help increase public awareness and support for meaningful and needed criminal justice reform,” said Derek Cohen, director of conservative reform group Right on Crime.
The last time Trump met with a member of West’s family, Kim Kardashian West successfully convinced him to grant clemency to drug offender Alice Johnson. Actor Sylvester Stallone was vital to the effort to earn a posthumous pardon for boxer Jack Johnson.
“With Kanye, with someone who’s just so off in the weeds on these issues, I don’t think the NAACP or non-profit sector or even victims are able to use Kanye as a soldier for their issues,” Tillery said.
Amid his ramblings Thursday, West touched on gun control—“Illegal guns is the problem, not legal guns”—and ending the stop-and-frisk practices Trump supports in Chicago. He also spoke abstractly about the case of Larry Hoover, the leader of the Gangster Disciples who is serving a life sentence for murder.
“Really, the reason why they imprisoned him is because he started doing positive for the community he started showing that he actually had power, he wasn’t just one of a monolithic voice, that he could wrap people around. So, there’s theories that there’s infinite amounts of universe, and there’s alternate universe,” West said.
According to Ring, one of the most important developments of the day on the reform front may have come before the president and the rapper met. During a phone interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump indicated he would be willing to overrule Attorney General Jeff Sessions and sign a criminal justice reform bill the Justice Department opposes.
“That’s a key piece we were waiting to hear because we knew Attorney General Sessions was opposed to all reform,” Ring said.
While it is true celebrity appeals have moved Trump before, Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America,” expressed concern that his approach appears to be transactional rather than truly taking into account the systemic problems.
“It’s great Kim Kardashian West can appeal to get Alice Johnson released from jail,” she said. “There is still a larger question of whether or not our sentencing practices are actually commensurate with the crimes being committed and whether or not they promote rehabilitation that these personal appeals don’t address.”
President Trump was also joined Thursday by musicians Kid Rock, John Rich, a Beach Boy and a Doobie Brother to sign the Hatch-Goodlatte Music Modernization Act, which will help artists who recorded music before 1972 obtain royalties from digital and streaming services.
All presidents engage with celebrity advocates on various issues, but those relationships seem especially important to this president, a former reality television star and New York tabloid fixture who regularly tweets responses to stars who criticize or praise him.
“This is a president that values the approval of entertainment celebrities,” Tillery said. “To have a guy like Kanye, high-profile, wearing the MAGA hat is something this president likes.”
Trump has often recalled the big-name stars who campaigned for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 but did not deliver her a victory. Meanwhile, the celebrity speakers at his Republican National Convention were Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr.
“Trump is a celebrity, yet has almost no backing from the celebrity class. Whether its music, film, TV, Trump is pretty much a lone wolf out there,” Berkovitz said.
President Trump has often claimed West’s public support boosted his approval among African Americans. Some polls indicate his approval rating with that group has improved, but there is no evidence of a correlation to any of West’s comments.
“To the extent President Trump’s approval rating has improved among blacks, it is more likely because of the strong economy,” Gillespie said, noting that Gallup’s tracking poll has shown little variation in African American approval since Trump took office.
Tillery is unconvinced the erratic rapper is bringing many of his fans into the MAGA tent.
“I think black voters are very savvy and they, like the activists, are smart enough to understand what’s happening here,” he said.
Berkovitz doubts the spectacle will negatively impact Trump’s standing among black voters, though. Since Democrats have struggled to motivate that demographic without Barack Obama on the ballot, there could be an opening there.
“It’s a way to get attention of voters who don’t pay a lot of attention to politics,” he said, “and that’s most voters.”
For West, the consequences of hitching himself to the Trump train are still uncertain. He has indicated political aspirations before—he declared he would run for president in 2020 during a 2015 award show speech—but he made clear Thursday he has no intention of challenging Trump for the Oval Office.
“Only after, 2024,” West said when asked about his presidential ambitions.