Michael Barnett has spent years encouraging Haitian-Americans to vote Republican. And he was an early and continuing supporter of President Donald Trump.
Those two priorities suddenly collided for Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican party and vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, with reports that Trump used the word “shithole” to describe Haiti. The president denied Friday morning on Twitter that he had used the term to denigrate Haiti.
Barnett said he believes the president and doesn’t believe Trump feels negatively toward the Haitian people.
“The president has denied slandering the Haitian people, and I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Barnett said. “This off-the-cuff remark was probably not meant to be taken the way it sounded. He does not believe that Haiti was, quote-unquote, a shithole country. I don’t believe he believes that.”
Critics have cited the other part of Thursday’s reported statement, putting African nations in the “shithole” category when discussing immigration legislation, as evidence of racist sentiment. Trump didn’t deny that he used the term for African countries in the meeting in which he reportedly said he’d rather have more people come to the U.S. from countries like Norway.
Barnett, who is black, said, “I definitely don’t believe Donald Trump is a racist.”
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat whose district includes part of South Broward and Miami’s Little Haiti community, said Trump is racist and she doesn’t believe his denial.
“Not only has Donald Trump revealed himself to be an insensitive, bigoted racist to people and countries of color, today he reminded us that he will lie to the American public to save face,” she said in a statement. “I am embarrassed and outraged on behalf of my Haitian, Salvadoran and African constituents who are stunned and disturbed by the racist in the White House.”
Barnett said the comment attributed to the president “looks unhelpful” to one of his top priorities: making long-term gains for Republicans in the Haitian-American community.
Barnett has spent the past five years introducing his party’s candidates to Haitian-American leaders, pushing his party’s message on Haitian radio stations and courting Haitian pastors.
In December, when Trump arrived at Palm Beach International Airport to begin his Christmas vacation at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Barnett was at the fence with other supporters to greet the president – and brought six Haitian-American pastors.
In September 2016, he organized a campaign event for Trump in Miami’s Little Haiti, at which he promised he’d be champion for Haitian voters. He later praised the Little Haiti crowd as “unbelievable people.”
Barnett said Friday morning that he’d already received questions by email and Facebook from some of the Haitian community leaders who attended the Trump campaign event in Little Haiti. He said he’s told them that he’s seen nothing from Trump “indicative of racism or a man who disrespected the Haitian people.”
Ronald Surin, a vice president of the Haitian-American Democratic Club of Broward, said the president’s denial on Twitter – more than 14 hours after his use of the term was first reported – lacks credibility.
“There’s many instances where the president has not shown great leadership in reaching out to the spectrum of Americans. He has shown to be very divisive,” Surin said.
He cited previous reports, denied by the White House, that Trump believed people from Haiti all had AIDS. And the Trump administration decided last year not to give a full extension of Temporary Protected Status, which has allowed Haitians to work legally in the U.S. after a series of calamities hit their country.
Surin said Trump fooled some Haitian-Americans into voting for him by holding the election season meeting in Little Haiti and promising to be a champion for Haitians.
Surin predicted that Trump’s actions would undo any inroads Republicans have made
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for Haitians who are Republican … to publicly identify with a party that has been very silent in this kind of environment where Haitian-Americans have been denigrated,” he said. “The home of the Haitian-American is definitely in the Democratic Party.”
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