Donald Trump’s Rise Divides Black Celebrities He Counts Among His Friends

From left: Donald J. Trump, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the boxing promoter Don King in 2005. “To me, Donald is Donald," Mr. King said recently. "That’s not a presidential endorsement, but it is a humanistic endorsement.” Credit Peter Kramer/Getty Images
From left: Donald J. Trump, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the boxing promoter Don King in 2005. “To me, Donald is Donald,” Mr. King said recently. “That’s not a presidential endorsement, but it is a humanistic endorsement.” Credit Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Not long ago, Donald J. Trump and Russell Simmons were close.

The hip-hop mogul and his brother Rev. Run would fly on Mr. Trump’s private plane to Mar-a-Lago, the real estate developer’s lavish Florida resort. Mr. Simmons even had a playful nickname for Mr. Trump: Richie Rich.

When Mr. Simmons was going through a divorce, Mr. Trump’s teasing phone calls lifted his spirits.

“He’d say funny stuff,” Mr. Simmons said, adding that he had put Mr. Trump on speakerphone so that others could hear Mr. Trump’s jovial taunts about his ex-wife getting the upper hand in the divorce. “He’d say, ‘Oh, she killed you.’ ”

But the bond between the two men came apart this month: After Mr. Trump called for Muslims to be barred from entering the United States, Mr. Simmons denounced his onetime friend, telling him in an open letter to “stop fueling fires of hate.”

Mr. Trump’s rise in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination — which has also prompted accusations that he is using racially charged rhetoric and has drawn comparisons to the segregationist George Wallace — has created some discord among African-American celebrities whom Mr. Trump has called friends. The billionaire developer has long courted personalities from the worlds of sports and entertainment, including the boxer Mike Tyson, the former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman, and the rapper and producer Sean Combs — and he has made them part of his world in strikingly personal ways.

Some of Mr. Trump’s African-American friends and acquaintances say they are mystified by the candidate’s sweeping attacks on minority groups. In addition to his comments about Muslims, he has said Mexico sends “rapists” and other criminals to the United States; has exaggerated the role of blacks in violent crime; and suggested a Black Lives Matter protester who interrupted one of his campaign rallies “should have been roughed up” by his supporters.

While Mr. Simmons has denounced Mr. Trump, others are sticking by the candidate, saying that they were drawn to him in part because of his unvarnished personality — and his loyalty — and that they would not abandon him now.

“Hey, that’s my man. That’s who he is,” said Don King, the boxing promoter, discussing what he called Mr. Trump’s “outlandish” remarks. “To me, Donald is Donald. That’s not a presidential endorsement, but it is a humanistic endorsement,” he said.

Mr. Tyson, who is Muslim, recently defended Mr. Trump, telling the website TMZ, “Hey listen, anybody that was ever president of the United States offended some group of people.”

While Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has become more incendiary since his campaign began, his worldview was already on display over the years in his interactions with African-American friends, who have at times been forgiving of remarks that struck other audiences as insensitive.

“He’d say ‘the blacks,’ ‘the Jews,’ that stuff,’ ” Mr. Simmons recalled. “But it’s the same way people speak bluntly — like, very ’hood. It’s semantics.”

Mr. Simmons did not publicly shun Mr. Trump in 2011, when the real estate developer showed support for those challenging President Obama’s right to American citizenship and to the presidency, which many black leaders saw as an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the first African-American in the White House. After Mr. Trump spoke of a “Muslim problem” in a television interview that same year, Mr. Simmons arranged for him to meet with Muslim clerics to gain more sensitivity about their faith.

Herschel Walker, a football legend who played for the New Jersey Generals when Mr. Trump bought the team in the 1980s, and who considers him a friend, said that some of the candidate’s recent statements were being taken too literally. “I don’t think Donald is against Muslims, or blacks, or Hispanics,” Mr. Walker said. “I do know he is going to try to make this country safe.”

Mr. Trump has long relished the company of famous and successful people, seeing in their accomplishments a reflection of his own greatness, those who know him say. He likes to brag about his closeness to celebrities, once saying of Michael Jackson, who kept a home in a Trump building in Manhattan: “He follows me around, in the sense that he likes what I have.”’

Mr. King and others say that Mr. Trump tends to size up people based on whether he sees them as being of his stature, rather than according to their race.

“What matters to Trump is success,” Mr. King, 84, said in a phone interview, recalling fondly how their friendship grew from ringside encounters at boxing matches in Atlantic City. “If you are achieving success, you meet the test.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has at times been friendly with Mr. Trump over the years but at others has battled with him, was more critical, suggesting that the billionaire was drawn to accomplished African-Americans for a different reason: to help his businesses.

“Black celebrities and luminaries live in a world that is much more engaging of Trump, and parallel with Trump’s world, than those of us that have been in politics and civil rights on the ground for as long as Trump has been out there,” Mr. Sharpton said. Mr. Trump had little understanding of the lives of the vast majority of African-Americans, he said.

“It’s not like there’s a Trump building in Harlem,” he added.

Mr. Trump, 69, is no stranger to racial controversy. Raised in an exclusive, nearly all-white section of Queens in an era when tribal politics dominated New York, Mr. Trump and his father were accused by the Justice Department in the 1970s of bias against black tenants in buildings they owned. They reached an agreement with the federal government in 1975.

In 1989, Mr. Trump took out full-page advertisements in four New York newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty after five men — four of them black — were arrested on charges of brutalizing and raping a white woman who was jogging in Central Park. Decades later, the five were exonerated.

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times – Maggie Haberman & Steve Eder