In the wake of Omarosa Manigault Newman's departure from the West Wing in December and recent tell-all book rollout replete with accusations of racism, a senior White House official was asked simply: Who is the most senior black aide on President Donald Trump's staff?
After an awkward delay, the answer from Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, was "Ja'Ron."
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It would fall to recently departed White House aide Marc Short later in the Sunday morning broadcast to provide the full name for the staffer she was referencing: Ja'Ron Smith, special assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.
The episode thrust Smith into the spotlight as the White House faced questions about its interest and commitment to diversity. None of the 48 assistants and deputy assistants to the President are black.
Hired in 2017 to serve as an adviser to Trump on Urban Affairs and Revitalization, Smith was tasked with pursuing Trump's agenda on a slate of issues important to the black community, including prison reform and historically black colleges and universities.
"There were a lot of people who were upset that he joined the administration because they felt he had turned his back on the community that he said he wanted to help," said one Republican close to the White House.
It is a challenging assignment: Trump entered the White House having only won 8% of the black vote. The President has also antagonized black Americans by claiming that there were good people on "both" sides of a deadly rally in Charlottesville held by White supremacists and Nazis and his prolonged criticism over protests of racial injustice by NFL players.
Most recently, Manigualt Newman's book about her time working for Trump, she has resurrected rumors of an alleged tape of Trump saying the "N-word" during a taping of NBC's "The Apprentice," the reality television show that made both of them household names.
The White House did not make Smith available for comment.
Road to the White House
Shortly before Trump's inauguration, Smith was contacted about coming on board as an urban affairs and revitalization policy adviser, a decision that he knew would be controversial.
"He was well aware that he would be called an 'Uncle Tom,' " said one source familiar with Smith's thinking at the time. "He was willing to bear the cross at this point in his life. He sees the bigger picture."
He's since been promoted to special assistant to the President for domestic policy, and in June, to special assistant to the President for legislative affairs.
At the White House, Smith has been a constant presence on conference calls, briefings with journalists. And most recently at Trump's meeting on prison reform convened at his golf course in Bedminster last week and at his meeting with inner-city pastors before that.
Smith called the meeting with pastors a "watershed moment" during brief remarks earlier this month and told the President it was "opportunity to learn about a community that has felt left behind for years."
A Howard University graduate with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in Divinity, Smith has more than a decade of experience on Capitol Hill, working in politics as an aide to then-Congressman Mike Pence when he was chairman of the Republican Conference. Smith later served as an aide to Republican Sen. Tim Scott.
Scott called Smith a "significant member of my team" in a statement to CNN, citing his contributions on banking, tax, and social and conservative policy.
"I'm proud to witness his growth throughout his career in Washington," he said.
Smith, during an appearance last year on the National Association for County Community and Economic Development's Holistic Housing Podcast, said his life in politics "wasn't anything I planned."
But his upbringing in a single-parent household in Cleveland in the 1980s launched his path to public service, Smith said.
"When I was in high school, I saw friends and people I love who started to fall off that ladder of opportunity and that has really inspired me to do something to be a change or represent the interests of people who can't really speak for themselves," he said.
Smith interned for Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, a black Republican, shortly after the 2000 election of George W. Bush. It was there that he discovered his conservative leanings.
"Growing up where I grew up, Republicans were like a bad word," he told the podcast. "I had to learn what it meant to be a conservative. It really was, you know, cultivating individuality... Well that's what I'm all about, because I think everyone has talents and gifts, if given the right opportunity. And so that really led me on a whole pursuit of truth and figuring out what's the right way to revitalize and create opportunity for people."
A tiny few
Even as Smith has played a role in the White House's public efforts to demonstrate engagement on issues that matter to communities of color, he still does not work in the West Wing, nor does he hold the title that Manigault Newman did before her departure: Assistant to the President, a title that comes with the maximum salary of $180,000.
Asked on Wednesday how many black White House aides currently work in the West Wing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders refused to say.
"As I addressed yesterday, we value diversity not just at the White House but throughout the administration," Sander said. "I'm not going to go through and do a count."
But as the number of black staffers in the White House has dwindled, the pressure on those that remain in the administration has increased. And the scrutiny surrounding Smith as a result of this latest episode with Manigault Newman only heightens the risks for other black Republicans considering joining the administration, Short said.
"I think that over time it's now become a bigger problem because people feel like if I join, I'll be under a microscope," Short said.
As Trump and the White House have come under scrutiny for this and other issues related to race, some wonder why a qualified policy aide like Smith has not been promoted -- especially in Manigualt Newman's absence.
"This is the only White House in 50 years that hasn't had an African-American advising the president. How does that happen?" said Shermichael Singleton, a Republican strategist who briefly worked as an aide to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson before he was fired for his 2016 campaign criticism of Trump. "It would definitely send a message that they're serious."
"You can't get any more serious than appointing people to roles where they have influence," he added.
Trouble finding and retaining black staff
There have always been few black aides on Trump's West Wing staff -- now the number is even fewer after at least two others departed earlier this year. Daris Meeks, who worked as a domestic policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence rejoined the private sector and Mary Elizabeth Taylor, who was the deputy director of Legislative Affairs of Nominations has been nominated for a State Department position.
Smith, who like Meeks and Taylor, were brought in the Trump orbit by Short, the recently departed White House legislative affairs director. Smith remains one of the only staffers holding a prominent role in this White House. Within the White House he is well liked, and he is considered knowledgeable and competent among advocates, despite their skepticism of Trump's policies.
"I hired Ja'Ron 10 years ago on Pence's staff in leadership," Short said. "He has a very engaging personality. His network of friends is enormous as are his Hill associates. Ja'Ron is a great asset to any legislative affairs office."
Meanwhile, some black Republicans, including Kay Cole James, president of the Heritage Foundation, have alleged that Manigault Newman played a role in blocking the appointment of other black Republicans to White House roles. They say she sought to remain the only senior black adviser in Trump's orbit.
But one former Trump administration official offered another explanation: a former reality television star's prominence as the top black official in the White House signaled a lack of serious interest in the issues important to African-Americans.
"There's probably a question where people would say, if you have Omarosa in that role, are you serious?" the former official said.
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