After President Donald Trump took office, I spent some time talking to people who had met with him privately in the White House, trying to get a sense of what he’s like when the cameras are off.
At the time, I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. One of my most surprising interviews was with Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland. The duo didn’t seem like they’d hit it off when they met in the White House in March 2017. Cummings, a Democrat, is the son of sharecroppers from South Carolina; Trump, a Republican, is the son of a rich real-estate developer in New York who once faced federal allegations that his company refused to rent apartments to black tenants. When the two of them sat down to talk about lowering prescription-drug prices that spring, the conversation took an unexpected turn: They fell into a candid give-and-take about race.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump had painted black neighborhoods as hellscapes from which there was no way out. “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs,” Trump said at a rally in Michigan in 2016, trying to court black voters. “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Sitting together in the Oval Office that day, Cummings was blunt. The 13-term congressman told the president that his words were “insulting” and that “most black people are doing pretty good.” Trump didn’t get defensive or angry. He listened quietly, taking it in, Cummings recalled. “Probably nobody has ever told you that,” Cummings told the president. “You’re right—nobody has ever told me that,” Trump replied.