ATLANTA -- Three years after challenging black voters to shrug off support for Democrats and back him, President Donald Trump used Atlanta as a staging ground for a new black outreach initiative that he said would be a key part of his 2020 reelection bid.
Surrounded by roughly 400 supporters, including some who were from out of state, the president on Friday invoked the refrain he repeated so often during the 2016 campaign in front of largely white crowds as an appeal to black voters: "What the hell do you have to lose?"
Those who took the gamble and supported him, Trump said, were rewarded with criminal justice initiatives, low black unemployment rates and staunch opposition to abortion, he said at the launch of his Black Voices for Trump group. Democrats, he countered, can only come up with empty promises.
"Under Democratic politicians, African Americans have become forgotten -- literally forgotten -- Americans," Trump told the crowd, a mostly black audience that also included much of the Georgia GOP's top leadership. "Under my administration, they've become forgotten no longer."
Outside the cramped Georgia World Congress Center, hundreds gathered to protest the president, waving signs mocking his agenda or supporting his impeachment. Some got into shouting matches with Trump supporters. And earlier in the day, several of Georgia's most prominent Democratic leaders assailed his presidency.
State Sen. Nikema Williams, the Atlanta-based chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said Trump was bringing his "backward agenda to Georgia to pretend like his actions haven't been a disaster for the black community and marginalized communities across this entire country."
"In Georgia, we know better on issues from healthcare to criminal justice to education to basic respect, Donald Trump has failed to be a president for all Americans, especially Americans from marginalized backgrounds," Williams said Friday morning.
Trump is trying to improve on dismal support among black voters. Just 8% of them cast ballots for him nationwide in 2016. And a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that only 4% of blacks think Trump's actions and policies have benefited black people.
Angeline Payne, who lives in South Fulton, said she attended the event to support Trump and "rally and recruit" black voters. More blacks need to get engaged in politics and stop letting others tell them how to vote, she said.
"If you live in America, you're involved," said Payne, 58. "So you should get educated. Find out about the parties, where the parties came from, how they represent you, and then make a decision on what party you want to be and don't let somebody tell you what party you're in."
Payne, who teaches financial literacy, said when voters aren't engaged they just align with a party by default. "And if you're not looking at the other side and seeing what they're doing," she said, "do you really want to be represented by that?"
The event was nothing like the last time Trump appeared at the Georgia World Congress Center, when thousands of his supporters thronged a vast concrete ballroom in 2016 for a rally memorable in part because the lights briefly went out.
Friday's event was held in a far smaller room in the convention center and was open to only those who had invitations, leaving some of the president's backers waiting outside for a chance to see him speak.
It started with an excerpt of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a poem that's often referred to as the black national anthem, which caused a stir on social media with critics who called it disingenuous.
Trump was preceded by Vice President Mike Pence, who told the crowd of the sweep of black Republicans who were elected to office during the Reconstruction era and said that the GOP, from Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower, has advocated for black Americans.
Then came U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, the only black member of Trump's Cabinet, who drew a rousing ovation when he told the crowd that if "Trump is a racist, he's an awfully bad one."
That contrasted with the message from Williams and other Democratic legislators, who blasted the president's play for black voters and said their party is best positioned to meet the needs of communities of color. The Rev. Timothy McDonald, a civil rights leader and pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, closed the news conference Friday morning with a scathing rebuke of Trump's latest effort to woo black voters.
"To launch a program that he thinks is going to cause black people to vote for him is outrageous, it is insane and it is a slap in the face of all Americans of goodwill," McDonald said. "This man's rhetoric and his agenda have taken our country backward, not forward, to a time when there was much pain that existed."
Although Trump's event targeted black voters, the audience was peppered with influential white politicians from Georgia: Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and U.S. Reps. Doug Collins, Buddy Carter and Jody Hice were all in the building. Each was also singled out by Trump.
The crowd was also dotted with local black conservatives. Among the attendees was Herman Cain, the former presidential hopeful; Alveda King, a niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Melvin Everson, a former state legislator.
The event served as a reunion of sorts for black Trump supporters from across the nation. Political adviser Katrina Pierson named over a dozen states she said attendees hailed from, including Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Texas. "You forgot Arkansas!" a few people shouted.
Trump gave one of the most prominent speaking slots, though, to a lesser-known supporter: Kelvin King, an Atlanta contractor and Air Force veteran who credited Trump's economic agenda for helping his business thrive and thanked the president for "making the black community a priority."
"Our future success depends on our success in ignoring the distractions we see on a daily basis," King said. "Don't sit on the sidelines because of emotions or feelings."
David Solomon, who came to the event from Miami, is the type of voter that Trump is hoping to win over. He said he was drawn to Trump because of his support for school choice and opposition to abortion, and that he plans to challenge other black voters to question their party ideology.
"Why not try something different?" he said. "We've already given them a shot for 50-some-odd years, and what have they done for us?"
(Bria Felicien contributed to this report.)
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