By Yamiche Alcindor
White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour
WASHINGTON, DC — Gregory Cheadle, the black man President Donald Trump once described at a rally as “my African American,” is fed up.
After two years of frustration with the president’s rhetoric on race and the lack of diversity in the administration, Cheadle told PBS NewsHour he has decided to leave the Republican party and run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representative as an independent in 2020.
Now, the 62-year-old real estate broker, who supported the Republican approach to the economy, said he sees the party as pursuing a “pro-white” agenda and using black people like him as “political pawns.” The final straw for Cheadle came when he watched many Republicans defend Trump’s tweets telling four congresswomen of color, who are all American citizens, to go back to their countries, as well as defend the president’s attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and his comments that Cummings’ hometown of Baltimore is “infested.”
“President Trump is a rich guy who is mired in white privilege to the extreme,” said Cheadle, of Redding, Calif., who switched from being an independent to a Republican in 2001. “Republicans are too sheepish to call him out on anything and they are afraid of losing their positions and losing any power themselves.”
Thursday afternoon, when asked by NewsHour on the White House lawn about Cheadle leaving the Republican party, President Trump claimed he has a lot of support from African American voters.
“We have tremendous African American support,” Trump told NewsHour. “I would say I’m at my all-time high. I don’t think I’ve ever had the support that I’ve had now. I think I’m going to do very well with African Americans. African American support has been the best we’ve had.”
When pressed about whether he thought Cheadle was wrong to say Trump was pursuing a “pro-white” agenda, Trump said he didn’t know who Cheadle was. After NewsHour recalled the 2016 moment to Trump, the president continued to tout his popularity among African American voters. “I think this–it’s very simple,” Trump said. “We’ve had the best numbers we’ve ever had for African Americans in terms of employment and unemployment. So I think we’re going to do very well.”
President Trump faced fierce backlash after he tweeted in July that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., should leave the United States.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump wrote. “Then come back and show us how it is done.”
That same month, Trump said Cummings’ Maryland district which includes parts of Baltimore was “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
The White House and Trump have fiercely defended the president’s comments as fair criticism of the lawmakers’ liberal policies. But for Cheadle, the incidents were too much. A few weeks ago, he was scrolling through posts written by fellow Republicans, who are his Facebook friends, and reached a breaking point.
“They were sidestepping the people of color issue and saying that, ‘No, it’s not racist,’” he said. “They were saying these people were socialists and communists. That’s what they were saying. And I thought this is a classic case of whites not seeing racism because they want to put blinders on and make it about something else.”
Cheadle became widely known in June 2016 when Trump, then a presidential candidate, pointed to him at a rally in Redding, Calif. and said, “Look at my African American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?”
When you look at his appointments for the bench: White, white, white, white white, white, white.
At the time, Cheadle took the president’s comments as a joke and laughed along with the president and the crowd of largely white supporters. Now, his view of that moment has changed. “I’m more critical of it today than I was back then because today I wonder to what extent he said that for political gain or for attention,” he said.
Cheadle said he understands some will think he waited too long to leave the Republican party, even accepting those assertions as “correct.” He said he had held out hope that the Republican party would move to work on challenges specifically facing African Americans like healthcare disparities or black families having less wealth than white families. But, he no longer expects that.
Cheadle said he is especially unhappy with the racial makeup of the president’s judicial nominations. Trump often gets loud applause at campaign rallies for touting how many judges his administration has been able to get confirmed by the Senate. But an Associated Press analysis has found that 91 percent of Trump’s nominees are white, and 81 percent are male.
Cheadle said he wouldn’t use the term “racist” to describe the president but believes he has a “white superiority complex.”
“When you look at his appointments for the bench: White, white, white, white white, white, white,” Cheadle said. “That to me is really damning to everybody else because no one else gets a chance because he’s thinking that the whites are superior, period.”
As a black Trump supporter, Cheadle was part of a small club. The majority of African American voters have overwhelmingly supported Democrats for decades. President Trump won the support of just eight percent of black voters in 2016, while Hillary Clinton won 88 percent of them.
Trump’s overall approval rating sits at 41 percent, while 45 percent of people “strongly disapprove” of the job he’s doing, according to the latest PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist poll released this week. Among Republicans, he is much more popular. Another poll by PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist from earlier in the summer found that 90 percent of Republicans approve of the job he is doing, while the president’s approval rating with independent voters was 42 percent and his disapproval was 53 percent.
Cheadle said he is open to voting for candidates in any party and will evaluate how their platforms will help African Americans when deciding who to support in the future.
This will be Cheadle’s fifth time running for Congress, though he has yet to win. He most recently ran in 2018–vying for the same seat to represent California’s first congressional district. As part of his platform, he will be advocating balancing the federal budget and providing zero interest student loans.
When asked what he would say to critics who think he is leaving the Republican party for publicity, Cheadle said he understands the potential criticism, but that he believes running as an independent is even harder than as a Democrat or Republican because of the lack of party structure. In the end, his decision came down to being disgusted with the president’s words.
“We just haven’t had people called the names publicly that we have had with this administration,” he said. “To stay on this ship now, as a black Republican, I couldn’t do it.”