Omarosa, Trump's Favored Apprentice, Carves Out WH Role

Omarosa, Trump's Favored Apprentice, Carves Out WH Role
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When Omarosa Manigault was cast on the first season of Donald Trump’s reality show “Celebrity Apprentice,” it seemed an unusual fit. Manigault’s main claim to “fame” was her role on the first season of “The Apprentice” -- as the show’s charismatic villainess.

During one episode of “Celebrity Apprentice,” British television personality Piers Morgan noted the incongruity. “You’re not a celebrity,” he said flatly. “And you don’t have star power.” But Manigault had one thing going for her that superseded everything else.

“I adore you,” Trump told her in a 2013 episode of “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice,” a subsequent spin-off that convened “Celebrity Apprentice” contestants from previous seasons. “We’ve had tremendous success together. You helped make ‘The Apprentice.’ You helped to make me a star.”

A moment later, Trump “fired” her, the third time he’d done so on national television. But their partnership continued. Now, Trump has cast Manigault in another unlikely role, as an adviser in his White House — a twist that would seem implausible even on reality TV. Among the president’s eclectic cast of senior advisers, Manigault has said that Trump sees her as “his Valerie Jarrett,” a reference to President Obama's close personal friend who was a central powerbroker in the Obama White House.

In practice, Manigault’s role as communications director for the Office of Public Liaison has been degrees less influential than the Jarrett comparison might suggest. Traditionally, the office coordinates outreach to the full spectrum of interest groups, aiming to build support among them for the administration’s initiatives. The Trump administration is already confronting its share of thorny issues and has alienated some key stakeholders in the process: This week, a few influential conservative groups voiced opposition to the administration’s proposal to reform health care.

But Manigault’s focus has been narrower. Already, she has pushed the president to sign an executive order “to promote excellence and innovation” at Historically Black Colleges. She also organized a handful of appearances by the president to mark Black History Month, including a visit to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. From time to time, she pops in to observe press briefings.

“No one understands her portfolio,” said one senior White House adviser.

RealClearPolitics was unable to obtain an interview with Manigault and get clarification on that point and others.

Her portfolio might be less relevant, however, than her proximity. Although Manigault’s office is not in the West Wing, her close relationship with the president has won her walk-in privileges to the Oval Office, according to one friend, and vaunted status as one of roughly two dozen designated assistants to the president, the highest staff ranking.

Manigault has not yet leveraged that influence on many key policy issues, although she did lead the push for the executive order on HBCUs, of which she is an alum. Domestic policy staffer Ja’Ron Smith took the lead on crafting the order, while Manigault solicited input and information from some stakeholders.

The effort culminated in an unusual vignette last month, when roughly 60 HBCU presidents crowded into the Oval Office for a photo op with the president. Manigault also brought along her fiancée, pastor John Allen Newman, introducing him to Trump as dozens of guests milled about.  

Among them was Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, who left impressed by the president’s attentiveness to the group -- and to Manigault herself. Earlier, a parade of senior aides, including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, had paid their respects. Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, kneeled on a sofa in the Oval Office to snap a photo of the group.

“I told [Manigault], ‘It seems like you are everything here,’” Taylor said.

Manigault’s and Trump’s unlikely partnership has its roots in “The Apprentice,” where the contestant impressed the host with her showbiz savvy and her ratings magnetism. In 2009, Trump created an independent TV vehicle for Manigault, a dating show called “The Ultimate Merger.” But their personal styles also meshed.

“Omarosa is very direct, she’s very honest and she's very blunt. And our president is,” said Paris Dennard, head of strategic communications for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, who has worked with Manigault on a few initiatives. “They are both Type-A, strong people, very opinionated, very hard-working. So, I think there’s a kindred spirit there.”

Manigault’s role also sends an important message, as a high-ranking African-American woman in an administration that has struggled to win support from women and minority groups. “It’s really good PR to have a … black woman at your side,” said one former campaign adviser.

Like Trump, Manigault brings scant government experience to her new senior role. She has previously worked in the executive branch, but in junior positions, beginning with a job answering invitations for Vice President Al Gore. She left a lasting impression. Decades later, one former co-worker recalled that she “was interested in climbing the ladder.

“She was no different than the person that we came to know on ‘The Apprentice,’” the former colleague said. “She was not always the best team player that we had.”

In her 2008 book, “The Bitch Switch: Knowing How to Turn It On and Off,” Manigault wrote that her direct manager at the Office of Presidential Personnel had it out for her from the beginning.

“She pretended to be supportive and excited about my working for her,” Manigault wrote, “but she constantly sabotaged my efforts.”

Manigault bounced among four administration jobs in two years, People magazine reported in 2004. In one Commerce Department job, “she was asked to leave as quickly as possible, she was so disruptive,” Cheryl Shavers, the former under secretary for technology at the department, told People. “One woman wanted to slug her.”

Considering her fraught federal employment history, the former Gore colleague added, “it’s surprising to me that this president has chosen to work with her in such a high-level way.”

Perhaps the decision is less surprising for this president, who seems to feed off of drama and values loyalty above other qualities. Manigault operates in a similar fashion — and already, she has brought some of her signature reality-TV drama with her into the White House.

In her first weeks on the job, she tangled publicly with April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. Ryan accused Manigault of threatening her with a “dossier,” but Manigault released a recording of their conversation that did not include such a reference. Ryan called the recording “Nixonian.” Meanwhile, some reports surfaced of Manigault attempting to claim a plum office, with a view of the Washington Monument, that had been designated for another aide.

But if these flaps have aligned with Manigault’s TV persona, she can be difficult to typecast. Although TV Guide dubbed her the “#1 Reality-Show Villain of All Time,” she is also an ordained Baptist minister and a former candidate for public office, a former Howard University professor, and a former director of education and research for Bill Cosby’s nonprofit foundation.

“I think she wants to be viewed as much more than someone who was a reality-TV star,” said Dennard. “...It’s a part of her, but it isn't what defines her.”

At Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Manigault is “Reverend O,” an assistant pastor and longtime congregant. She delivered an emotional farewell sermon there last month, as anti-Trump protesters marched outside.

“The community knows her as a loving and positive, giving person. That’s what she’s all about,” said the church’s Rev. K.W. Tulloss, who ordained and licensed Manigault a few years ago. “Regardless of what people might say, we know her for who she is.”

When Manigault and her mother joined the congregation in 2009, Tulloss recognized Manigault from her role on “The Apprentice” — but it struck him that Manigault “was the total opposite of what TV made her to be.”

In addition to delivering around five sermons each year, Manigault became active in the church’s community outreach, including efforts to help feed hundreds of families on Skid Row every month, and events at the Fred Jordan Mission there. Manigault also became something of a social justice advocate, marching and demonstrating along with Tulloss to protest police brutality. At a 2013 National Action Network vigil for Trayvon Martin, Manigault spoke alongside her pastor. 

“She’s been there in the trenches doing the work," Tulloss said, "feeding the homeless, marching and demonstrating for change in our communities.” 

In 2014, Manigault sought an open seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District school board, having worked as a special education substitute teacher in the district. “Members of the community, my congregation said, ‘Why don’t you step up and go for the seat?’ So I did,” Manigault told the website Hip Hollywood on the red carpet at BET’s Annual Celebration of Gospel. Of seven candidates in the primary election, Manigault placed sixth with 5.3 percent of the vote.

Manigault reestablished herself as a controversial national figure last year during the presidential campaign as Trump’s director of African-American outreach. Tulloss was not surprised that she returned to the fray, even though her politics did not align perfectly with Trump's. "She’s very loyal, as she was to her church,” he said. And Trump "was very loyal to her. He's someone she looked at as a mentor." 

In an interview with “Frontline” prior to the election, Manigault memorably declared that “every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump.” After Trump won, Manigault insisted her comment “was just all me,” adding, “God, I have to be so careful about what I say now.”

Lately, her moments out of the spotlight have perhaps been the most telling vis-a-vis her new role. During the transition, Manigault convened a private listening session among African-American community leaders; it was held at the American Enterprise Institute, with no press coverage permitted. Each attendee was given a few minutes to raise any issues, with more than 20 policy and other staff from the transition team on hand, recalled Dennard. That meeting was a precursor to Manigault’s work in the White House, including on HBCUs, that has centered on the African-American community.

“She doesn't have to do this extra stuff -- she’s not paid to -- but it’s because she cares,” said Dennard. “This is what happens to black people when you get in places of power: you take on things you don't normally have to, because you have to represent the community. That’s what she’s doing.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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