Trump's Black GOP allies challenged during tense discussion tailored to Black men

FAIRBURN, Ga. — As Reps. Wesley Hunt of Texas and Byron Donalds of Florida began the latest iteration of their “Congress, cognac and cigars” event aimed at bringing more Black men into the GOP fold here just outside of Atlanta, the two Donald Trump allies set their intentions for the conversation.

“All we want is for you to hear us out,” Hunt said, maintaining that the audience did not have to agree with everything they said and would have the opportunity to voice their own opinions.

Throughout the roughly two-hour conversation, moderated by former ESPN host and conservative podcaster Sage Steele at a cigar lounge filled with a diverse, but predominantly Black audience, several Black men took them up on that opportunity.

Donalds and Hunt were challenged repeatedly by several attendees over their legislative track record, stances on immigration and reparations, and their unwavering support for Trump. The dialogue at times got contentious, with several audience members accusing the lawmakers at various times of repeating generic Republican talking points or deflecting on issues of concern.

The event highlighted the challenges Trump’s Black allies may face attempting to win over independent or traditionally Democratic voters in cities like Atlanta, some of whom remain skeptical of the Republican Party despite its efforts to more aggressively court voters of color.

The discussion began with Donalds and Hunt urging the audience to defect from the Democratic Party, arguing that President Biden and Vice President Harris “don’t have the recipe for success in this country.”

But toward the second half of the event, the atmosphere grew contentious as Steele asked the room for the top issues they’d like to hear the congressmen address. Among them were immigration, national security and “morals.”

Jason R., a retired, college-educated Black husband and father who declined to provide his last name, shed light into what “morals” was in reference to.

“A local representative brought an amendment to the defense bill to reinstate a confederate monument that has a depiction of a ‘mammy’ receiving a white baby from a Confederate soldier” he began, “Of the four Black Republicans, three voted ‘yay’ on that.”

“It seems deceptive to come in here and talk about issues and then vote what seemingly isn’t based on principle,” Jason said.

Hunt responded by sharing an anecdote about several members of his family, including himself, attending West Point military academy. Hunt said he saw value in residing in “Robert E. Lee barracks.”

“Only in America can you have three Black children matriculate through the premier leadership institution of the entire world and graduate from there and live in a barracks named after a Confederate general,” Hunt said. “If it were named anything differently. I wouldn’t have that perspective.”

Donalds was also called out for a controversial remark he made during the Philadelphia stop of the “Congress, cognac and cigars” tour, during which he asserted the Black family was stronger during Jim Crow.

“You can talk about Black family, talk about the Black father, but when you intertwine Jim Crow into that, you’re going to drive people away,” Richard Wright said at Wednesday’s event.

Donalds maintained that his comments were misrepresented, saying that he was referring to “empirical data” from the time period suggesting higher marriage rates among Black Americans.

“Nobody wants Jim Crow to return,” Donalds said. “We were talking about Black families and I was referencing an era.”

Donalds suggested the backlash he received over the remark was the result of the Biden campaign targeting him for being a vice presidential contender for Trump.

“We’re in the middle of a presidential election, let’s call it what it is, yes, I’m on the shortlist for the vice presidency,” Donalds said. “The reason why my comments were taken that way is because the Joe Biden campaign, which has no answer for what’s actually hurting Black Americans today, they wanted to take my words and twist my words to say I wanted Jim Crow to return. That’s crazy talk, I don’t want that.”

The response did little to quell the palpable frustration among some attendees. One attendee Mike M., who declined to give his last name, is a graduate of Emory University and does not affiliate with a specific party. He forcefully pointed out that Donalds himself made the remark and “was trying to blame everyone else.”

“You don’t need to invoke Jim Crow to make your point,” he said.

As the conversation turned to immigration, several members of the crowd interjected as the Republican lawmakers criticized Biden over security at the southern border.

One attendee, Allen Hill, asked, “What are you going to do to fix it?,” and demurred when Donalds responded with Republican proposals to shut down the border, restrict the asylum process and use ICE to carry out mass deportation, which several audience members framed as “Republican talking points.”

“That’s not an answer, it’s a narrative,” Hill said.

Donalds and Hunt did have supporters in the room: One, Horace Holland Jr., grew tired of other audience members’ line of questioning on immigration, forcefully asserting that the conversation should center on addressing the plight of Black Americans rather than undocumented citizens.

“Why are you more concerned about people that came in illegally getting amnesty, when a Black man can go on the run for 20 years, but when they find him, he doesn’t get no amnesty!” Holland said.

Another point of contention centered on reparations.

“I’m going to tell you, I don’t believe in reparations,” Donald began.

“Then you don’t understand the Black community,” Hill shot back.

Donald attempted to explain his position.

“If you’re going to talk about reparations today, what you’re talking about is taking money from other Americans,” Donalds said. “You’re asking Americans today and in the future to pay that bill. Is it their bill … to pay?”

Though Donalds and Hunt appeared to have a fair share of supporters in the room, few were as vocal as the roughly dozen attendees who throughout the event interjected several times to challenge the two, some of whom later told NBC News they do not identify as Democrats or Republicans, but rather as “conservatives.”

“I think we got out points and got out frustrations and got out the things that we wanted to communicate for people coming down here who said they wanted to have an honest conversation with Black men in the Atlanta community,” Jason R. said of the event.

Hunt and Donalds too said they gained valuable insight from the discourse, emphasizing that they would continue to travel to cities with large Black populations to engage with voters.

“I know we have some spirited people here. There’s some Democrats in here, there’s some people that don’t agree with us,” Hunt said. “What we didn’t want to do as 50% of the Black Republicans in the halls of Congress was to not be here. That’s the worst thing we could ever do, was to not show up.”

“We can have those disagreements, that’s okay. But when we walk out of this room, I understand your viewpoint, you understand mine, we respect each other’s differences, we move on, we build better, we do better — that’s the thing that really matters,” Donalds added.

Hunt said the two next plan to bring their “Congress, cognac and cigars” event to Milwaukee closer to the Republican National Convention in July.

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