December 1, 2020

Ja’Ron Smith’s Balancing Act: A Black Republican Navigates the Trump White House

WASHINGTON — In the days after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a white neighborhood watch volunteer, Ja’Ron Smith was among a group of congressional aides who pulled on hoodies and stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest.

The demonstration was a powerful statement: Mr. Martin, a Black teenager, had been wearing a hoodie when he was killed, and the aides were Black, Asian and Hispanic, Republicans as well as Democrats. Mr. Smith, the president of the Black Republican Congressional Staff Association, spoke of being racially profiled himself and said it was “a real issue in our country, and it comes from ignorance.”

Eight years later, Mr. Smith, 37, is the highest-ranking Black official in the Trump White House, a deputy assistant to a president who has threatened protesters calling for police reform and racial justice after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in police custody, and who stands accused of running a re-election campaign that in ways subtle and explicit appeals to white racism.

As President Trump has escalated those appeals, calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate,” attacking the Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace and defending the Confederate flag, Mr. Smith has emerged as a de facto spokesman on criminal justice and one of the authors of an executive order on policing for a White House where there are no Black advisers in the president’s inner circle. He has worked with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Mr. Trump has taken to calling him “my star” when they are together in meetings.

Mr. Smith declined requests for an interview, but several of his friends say that serving as a partisan surrogate on television — one of the quickest ways to earn attention in Mr. Trump’s world — has not come naturally. The president’s recent comments and tweets, they say, have been demoralizing and tested Mr. Smith’s determination to focus on the issues he feels are important.

“It’s definitely something that he notices, and it’s something that he is dealing with,” Brandon Andrews, a former Republican Senate aide and friend of Mr. Smith’s, said when he was asked how Mr. Smith had reacted to the president’s heated language.

People who know him said that while Mr. Smith took the job fully aware that he would be criticized for going to work for Mr. Trump, he could not have anticipated the kind of racial reckoning touched off by the death of Mr. Floyd, the demonstrations that have followed or the angry pushback from the president.

Still, “he sees more value in having the relationships and having the access that he has, with so few Black people — or people of color — having access to this president,” Mr. Andrews said.

Mr. Smith is wary of becoming a lone administration voice on issues of race and has become adept at hiding his personal views, said J.C. Watts, who hired Mr. Smith as an intern when he was a congressman from Oklahoma.

“He’s probably had to just because of what the Black community perceives as an administration that is hostile,” Mr. Watts said. “His maturity had to be turbocharged. It had to just because of the relationship the community feels with this administration.”

Cedric Diakabana, a former Democratic Senate aide who worked with Mr. Smith in organizing the “Hoodies on the Hill” event in 2012, is not as sympathetic.

“I’m not surprised that in this White House the staff who work there have kind of left their convictions at the door,” he said. “They seem to be loyal to just Trump, and if you cross the president, you seem to just lose your job.”

ImageMr. Smith, right, participating in a demonstration with other congressional aides in 2012, after the death of Trayvon Martin.
Credit…J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Mr. Smith’s friends and allies say he believes that because of his background, he brings a perspective to the White House that is otherwise absent as well as an approach to domestic policy grounded in conservative principles.

Growing up in Cleveland, Mr. Smith and his four siblings were raised by his father for several years as his mother struggled with and later recovered from crack addiction. When he speaks publicly on topics including policing and criminal justice reform, he often cites the need for people in the communities like the one he grew up in to see more police officers of color. On Facebook, his avatar is a Bitmoji rendering of a Black man raising his fist.

Mr. Smith graduated from Howard University and its divinity school, and his entrance into Republican politics, friends say, was shaped largely by his faith. But he has also told friends it was out of frustration that he did not see conditions for Black families markedly improve in Cleveland under Democrats.

“He grew up in an area that was dominated by Democratic politics and yet still had many of the socioeconomic issues that you see in other urban centers,” Mr. Andrews said. “He’s said, ‘I asked myself why does this exist, and if what we’ve been doing isn’t working, then why not try something different?’”

Starting with Mr. Watts and later working for Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the future vice president, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Mr. Smith made a name for himself on Capitol Hill for his ambition, his drive and his willingness to work with Democrats, according to over a dozen friends, colleagues and White House officials who spoke for this article. He was offered a job in the Trump White House as an urban affairs policy adviser in 2017.

“A lot of people didn’t want to subject themselves to the criticism and the scrutiny,” said Darrell Scott, a minister and informal Trump adviser, recalling the backlash that he and other Black people, including the musician Kanye West, have received for expressing interest in working with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Smith was not deterred.

Until recently, Mr. Smith largely flew under the radar, while Omarosa Manigault-Newman, a White House aide, and Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, became known as the most prominent Black officials in the overwhelmingly white upper reaches of the Trump administration.

Ms. Manigault-Newman left the White House after less than a year and wrote a tell-all book calling the president a racist. Mr. Carson has maintained a relatively low profile, though nothing compared to Mr. Smith.

In a 2018 television appearance, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, did not appear to know Mr. Smith’s last name when asked to list high-ranking Black administration officials. “We have Ja’Ron,” she said.

Credit…Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

Behind the scenes, Mr. Smith worked with senior aides, especially Mr. Kushner, who credited him with being someone willing to work on the few policy areas where there has been any kind of bipartisanship.

That includes the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill that Mr. Trump signed into law in 2018, as well as other areas of Mr. Kushner’s portfolio, including immigration reform.

“He’s a pragmatist, he’s a deal maker, he’s a ‘how do we get to yes’ type of person,” Mr. Kushner said. “He does believe that you have to go into places that Republicans don’t normally go.”

Working with Mr. Kushner, Mr. Smith has also been part of an effort by the White House and the president’s re-election campaign to persuade Black voters to look past Mr. Trump at administration policies meant to benefit minority communities, including criminal justice reform and tax breaks for companies investing in hard-hit communities called opportunity zones, though a recent study determined that the opportunity zones were not yet spurring job creation.

Several members of the administration described Mr. Smith as a “happy warrior” who had focused on policy and did not see it as his mission to change the president.

“He is a focused individual, and he knows that he has priorities that need to be met,” Mr. Scott said, adding that “he has figured out how to get that accomplished” in the Trump White House.

Inevitably, Mr. Smith has been drawn into defending the president, especially in response to criticism of his executive order on policing, which Mr. Smith helped write.

The document has been targeted by critics who say it does not go far enough to push for sweeping changes to address systemic racism in policing, including in its language, which does not outlaw chokeholds outright.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“This is actually creating a system that is going to create better police-community relationships,” Mr. Smith said in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. “Instead of defunding the police, we want to work with these police departments.”

Mr. Smith told reporters in the White House driveway that the executive order was not about race at all. “A lot of people want to make it about race,” Mr. Smith said, “but it’s really about communities and individuals.”

And he has not been reluctant to criticize Democrats.

“The way the Democrats play politics against Republicans, all Republicans are racist and rich, when the truth of the matter is, it’s about results,” Mr. Smith said during a Fox News interview last month. “And that’s what the president is all about, results. And that’s why he was elected.”

When Senator Chuck Schumer of New York criticized the order as a “modest” move by the president that “will not make up for his years of inflammatory rhetoric and policies designed to roll back the progress made in previous years,” Mr. Smith responded.

Mr. Schumer, Mr. Smith said bluntly on Fox News, “helped create the system that we have.”

But one friend of Mr. Smith’s, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he was shocked to see him attacking Mr. Schumer and described Mr. Smith as “stressed” in a text message exchange after that appearance.

So far, Democrats have not returned the fire, directing it instead at the president. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the No. 5 Democrat in the House, praised Mr. Smith as a “real dude” and a voice of reason in delicate negotiations that led to the signing of the First Step Act.

“Ja’Ron certainly is one of the few individuals we’ve been able to find common ground with on issues of race and justice in the United States of America,” Mr. Jeffries said, before adding a caveat: “At the end of the day, President Trump is President Trump, and there will be limitations on how far Ja’Ron can push the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Another friend, who also did not want his name used, said Mr. Smith had leaned on his family and faith as well as his network of friends as Mr. Trump continued to run a campaign that seemed intent on widening the country’s racial divisions. But he added that Mr. Smith had no plans to leave the White House.

“I’ll say this,” that person said, “everybody is ready to be helpful the moment he doesn’t want to do this anymore.”