The Reverend Al Sharpton, whose career was shaped by the same New York tabloid media that created Donald Trump, said Trump called him soon after the election to praise his analysis on MSNBC of Trump's New York roots.
He also said Trump's notoriously thin skin is the result of the fact that he has no cause beyond his own brand.
"I don't mind getting the crap beaten out of me if I can turn around and say to Abner Louima, 'those cops went to jail for forty years.'" he said on NewsFeed. "So if you're only goal is you — yeah, we all have an ego, yeah we like the spreads in Vanity Fair. But that's not the goal. That's the means to the end. To him, that is the end. So if you're attacking him, you're attacking his goal."
Sharpton also talked about another longtime acquaintance on the right, the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
"I'd see Roger Ailes and we'd talk, and the funniest thing, he would always tell me, 'You know,' and he showed me a picture he took with Malcolm X back in the day, as a reporter. And I used to tease him, I said, 'So you're going to show me the Malcolm X picture. Why don't you show me the Nixon picture?' I said, 'I think you might've interviewed Malcolm. You worked and helped create Nixon.'"
And he blamed Hillary Clinton's defeat not on her failure to bring in white voters, but on her lack of effort in rallying black ones.
"You lost Michigan, by what, 15,000, 20,000 votes? You could've got that if you mobilized two housing projects or three churches," he said. "You didn't identify with those in identity politics, that's why you had the lowest turnout you had around blacks in a long time."
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Ben Smith: I'm thrilled to be joined today by Reverend Al Sharpton. Slightly intimidated to be joined by Reverend Al Sharpton, who is, among other things, he's on the radio all the time is something people may not know about him, but it's like, what do you broadcast for two hours a day. Right?
AL SHARPTON: Three. I do a three-hour call-in show for 11 years now. So on SiriusXm I had about 58 talk AM stations around the country.
Do you feel like that's important to your relevance?
AL SHARPTON: I think it's important to our being able to mobilize. People, people always ask me: "How do you all get thousands out so quickly?" I'm on the radio everyday. And I'm talking to a core constituency that I can say, "We going to Florida in two days for Trayvon," when nobody heard about it, and we get thousands to show up. That's why I am more connected on the ground than most people know, because I'm talking everyday, three hours a day, 15 hours a week, on the major black talk stations in the country.
You know, we were just talking about in the elevator about the only thing anybody can talk about these days. And I remember asking you this question, probably like a year and a half ago, which is, how do you see Donald Trump, back then when it was just kind of a joke that he was going to be the nominee.
But, you came up with him in the same media environment. You kind of fight battles with the same tabloids, you came in with a couple fewer resources than he did to those battles.
AL SHARPTON: Yeah, just a few.
And, I guess I wondered just to start out if you could give me your thoughts kind of how you see that media shaping him, shaping you. What people who didn't, who weren't battling the New York Post in the 1980s don't understand.
AL SHARPTON: I think there's a couple of things. And, and I'm flirting with an idea, I'm talking to some people right now, about doing a book on Trump and race, you have to understand New York, you have to understand Trump and the racial dynamic that feeds into the media demo. Because I don't think people understand: Donald Trump comes of Queens.
And only a New Yorker would understand. An out-of-borough person has a different psychology than an inner Manhattan power circle kind of guy. Because Trump, and his father before him, felt they were fighting the real estate establishment. The guys that eat at the power breakfast spots and the power lunch spots. Who never accepted them.
And in that dynamic he wanted to also be… He wanted to be a celebrity, almost like a Gatsby type. So he dealt with the media, the tabloids mostly. Not the Times or the Post, the Daily News, he'd feed them, he'd leak them stories on himself, and he felt that he could gain a bigger status than the establishment guys that he felt rejected by, by becoming a celebrity.
And he did! And I think that they missed that part of the narrative with Donald Trump. Because people don't understand, how could he, a billionaire, ritzy kind of guy, connect with these guys who are blue collar workers in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. He had the same chip on his shoulder, he just had it at a different level. That's where he is, I remember being, about three weeks after the election, I was on Morning Joe on MSNBC, and I said, "You'd have to be a New Yorker to understand Donald Trump. And you'd have to understand that this whole thing of the outer borough chip on his shoulder."
I went down, we had a national board meeting that morning, of the National Action Network. I'm in the meeting and, my phone, this cell phone goes, and these last four numbers are 2000, I thought it was some reporter that was trying to get me directly. I said, I pick up, I quietly say, "I'm in a board meeting. Can't talk. Leave a message on the voicemail or call me in three hours." Hung up.
They call right back! So I'm saying, "Well I wonder if a crisis happened!" So I pick up the phone, and I said, "I said I'm in a board meeting," and the lady said, "Would you hold on for the President Elect?" I said, "Huh?" And I go outside the board meeting and Trump goes on, "Al I saw you this morning on Morning Joe, you understand me. I'm an outer borough guy. You get me! You're an outer borough guy. You're from Brooklyn!" I said, "Yeah, but we were about $10 million different, though." [He said] "Eh, whatever!"
And that's who he is. And I think if you understand, a guy who felt his entree to the society world was feeding Page Six, the gossip page in New York, was feeding the guys who go to the Grammy's. This combination of almost a Gatsby kind of image without that, is who Donald Trump was in New York. If you do that against the racial dynamics of he's in the borough where Howard Beach, which really started the whole Civil Rights.
And that's probably a story that a lot of our listeners don't know about.
AL SHARPTON: Don't know. Howard Beach is a community in Queens, not far from where Trump comes from, where a black kid was killed in 1986 for being in the neighborhood. Car broke down. He and two friends walk into a pizzeria. They said, "Can we get some help?" They said, "Why are you in the neighborhood?" Were chased. Got killed. Family called me, this was the first case that I became pretty much known on. And we led marches in Howard Beach.
People came outside, in the streets throwing bananas at us and watermelons.
You were attacked.
AL SHARPTON: Right, we were attacked. And this is the borough that he comes from.
Now just to go back: To you, is he right? Do you identify with that a little bit? That this kind of feeling that you're an outer borough guy looking in?
AL SHARPTON: Well I think I get I get it more than the outer borough. I'm an outer borough black guy. So you got the racial dynamics and you're not part of the Manhattan elite.
Culture, and real estate, and finance, all of that's in Manhattan. The outer borough people, particularly, when I was growing up, we were the ones that come to work for the people in Manhattan, and that psychology, I'm about 9 or 10 years younger than Trump, but that psychology was the same when I was growing up. And that psychology was something you fight against, if you had race on top of that with me.
We were not even, the Harlem elite, we were in Brooklyn. So I understand that, I understand that that's what he genuinely tapped, that outer guy, that rejected guy, and a lot of people that, a lot of people couldn't understand, how the hell does he connect with these guys. He grew up a millionaire. He did. But he still had a chip on his shoulder.
And when you talk about the race politics in New York in the 80s shaping his view on his race, what do you mean?
AL SHARPTON: Well you had a very divided city. You had Ed Koch, who was the mayor, who played to, "I'm going to stop the poverty pimps," which was the poverty program.
New York Politics were all about race.
AL SHARPTON: It was always about race. And Trump was a Queens guy on that side. So fast forward, we get out of Howard Beach, Bensonhurst happens. Same thing. Community in Brooklyn, ethnic community, black kid killed, Yusef Hawkins, for being in the neighborhood. We go out, labor marches, I got stabbed, I got ran through the crow, in front of police, stabbed me in Bensonhurst.
We get out of Bensonhurst, almost around the same time and Central Park happens. There are five kids arrested accused of brutally beating and raping a white female in Central Park, in Manhattan. Most of the city is in an outrage, and everybody's like, "How can this happen?" One of the grandmother's of the sixth kid, Briscoll, calls me and says, "My grandson didn't do it, he was home, blah blah." So I go out, and I defend him, I end up defending all of them in the documentary that was done. I led the marches for them.
Trump took out full-page ads calling them names and saying they should have, they should be executed.
Now what was he doing? Why would he do that?
AL SHARPTON: I think that Trump was playing to the hysteria of the moment that he knew would get him a lot of attention. And I think it would help him with the law and order police crowd. Because you remember now, he's building, he's dealing with construction sites.
I marched on him and the Plaza Hotel — he owned the Plaza Hotel at the time — on behalf of these kids. and 13, 14 years later, DNA proved that these kids are going to jail wrongly. And Trump, the difference is, Trump never said he was wrong, even then he said the city should not pay them a settlement. This after the DNA said they were the wrong kid. One kid, Kharey Wise, did 13 years in jail, couldn't get a job, he's been in jail for 13 years. Worked for me at National Action Network for five years just about until he got the settlement. I had to give him a job!
Trump had no — and to this day, he says the police were right. That was the racial divide in New York. Now, he would inconvenience come across. He tried to be cool with so many entertainers. You know, Russell Simmons, Puffy, because he had the Taj Mahal and Atlantic City, and he needed the Axe to play his showroom.
So, he had Don King talk to me. "Oh come on, he's not a bad guy, that was years ago, and all that." Because he didn't want me saying—
So when was that?
AL SHARPTON: This was late, late 80s.
So he sent Don King as kind of an emissary. Did you ever develop a relationship with him?
AL SHARPTON: No. Nobody has a relationship with him. You talk to him. It's transactional. He says, he wanted Tyson to fight their king, and them cut a deal. Tyson fights, I go to ringside, he says, "Hey Al!" He acts like you never marched on him, he acts like your best friend. And then two months later, he's in the New York Post calling you a con man. I mean that's—that's who you know you're dealing with.
But you're also somebody who is always, who doesn't have permanent enemies, who deals with people of all sorts in New York city.
You get mad at reporters, you still take their call in the middle of a board meeting. I feel like that is a little bit part of the same culture that, that you gotta deal with, you hate the New York Post, you gotta deal with the New York Post, right?
AL SHARPTON: I think that it is part of culture. But I think we approach it differently. Like I said, he didn't have to deal with race, he didn't have to deal with poverty — I did. But it's the same culture. The difference is, he does it because his goal is ... you know, him having attention, and it feeds his business. Cause what does he sell? His name! He doesn't own most of this stuff. he sells his brand name.
So what, I mean he's somebody you've known forever, you've known of forever. The idea of him becoming president, seemed, I think, crazy to everybody, particularly people who had come up in New York where he'd really turned into a joke. I remember when I was at the New York Observer, we weren't even allowed to quote him anymore, because he was too overexposed. Peter Kaplan like put an end to it.
That election night, what was your thought?
AL SHARPTON: You know, I, in a million years, would've never believed he would've been president. I did a live hit as you call it, on MSNBC. And I was headed home. And my girlfriend called me, and she said, "You know, this is gonna be history. First woman president." You know she'd met Hillary a few times with me.
She said, "I want to go to the Javits Center." We went over, I'm in the back, she says, at the VIP thing, she said, "The lines are long for food," she says, "Don't you have an invitation for the viewing party?" And I went down to Harvey Weinstein's viewing party. He'd rented out Cipriani's, and about 50 people were invited. Naomi Campbell. The whole — a beautiful crowd.
And when it started turning the other way, I couldn't believe, so about midnight, I decided to go home, because I had to get up early.
That must've been quite a scene in that room.
AL SHARPTON: I couldn't believe it: Paul McCartney, Naomi Campbell, Harvey Weinstein. Just us. 50 people.
How was the room reacting?
AL SHARPTON: They were in shock. And I left about midnight, it hadn't been called. And I kept telling myself, riding up the West Side Highway, telling Aisha, my girlfriend, "Eh, we'll wake up in the morning, turn around, and it's just gonna be a lot tighter." I in a million years never believed, when I got up at 5 in the morning to go down to work out that they'd be saying that Donald Trump won.
And then, I'll be honest with you — I thought for a couple of days that there was going to be some fluke that would turn it around. I mean you have to grow up in New York seeing this guy, at every scene, ringside, Grammy, all of that, for you to believe what... Trump?! Who doesn't know a policy position on anything. Who has, who is not taken seriously in New York, is gonna be the President?! It was unbelievable.
I used to say, during the Election, I might've even said to you, if Donald Trump had been black, he'd have been Don King. That's who he is! A self-promoter salesman. But nobody! I've known Don King 35 years. But I've never imagined Don King to be President. Can you imagine? That's who, who you've got sitting in the White House?
If you had to pick, Don King or Donald Trump for President?
AL SHARPTON: At least Don King knows the flag and could wave the flag well. And, I think that he probably could hold more coherent press conferences. I mean this guy contradicts himself.
Something from that campaign because I remember talking to you about it, during the campaign. You know, it's not, Clinton didn't alienate black voters, she didn't, but also, she didn't, turnout was down, you can talk about why that was, but there was one moment in the campaign that I remember very vividly, because our reporter Tracy Clayton asked Clinton about her role in the crime bill in the 90s.
And I remember this, because she brought you up…
HILLARY CLINTON: I was interviewed by Al Sharpton the other day, and I’ve known him a long time, because I represented New York. And he said, because I think it’s good to be reminded of this, that in the 90s, and particularly when my husband became president, there was a great demand, not just from America writ large, but from the black community, to get tougher on crime. And Al Sharpton said this. He said, “I was one of those people who was asking that we get tougher on crime, and that we clean up our neighborhoods, and that we stop gangs from killing each other, and I was going around boarding up crack houses.” And he said, “so we can’t go back and say that we didn’t ask that a lot of this be done, because we did.”
I mean, it sounded to me like she was, in some ways, blaming you for the crime bill.
AL SHARPTON: Yeah, and that's a misperception. We were saying something should be done. I was painting red X’s, exposing crack houses, and we were saying some of the police were involved in it. What she did not end saying, and I said in the same interview with her, is that when they came with the omnibus crime bill, we said, no, that's too far, you're gonna have unintended consequences here.
Because what our main objection was, is how are you going to have mandatory time for a kid selling crack, and not mandatory time for the guy with loose cocaine, because there was no mandatory time for loose cocaine. You can't have crack without the loose cocaine. So we felt it was discriminatory. I marched on Bill Clinton about that! And the 94 Omnibus Crime bill. And a lot of the Congressional Black Caucus was with Bill Clinton, against us. We fought him on the crime bill.
So she's right about the appeal, and I'd said that in the interview. Yeah, we wanted something done. We were never pro — it's always amazing to me when people act like we were, we'd never dealt with black on black crime, as they call it, or we never were with the police.
No, we wanted police, but we didn't want to have people doing 30 years in jail, which is what that crime bill did. So that's where I was split with Mrs. Clinton. And as you, Ben Smith, when I had about 450 ministers at the National Action Network Luncheon at the Democratic Convention, young and old! I had Mary Pat Hector, who was at that time, 18, our national youth director, and all of the youth directors of traditional organizations, that was our problem.
Her mistake was that she did not mobilize in the black community. Let me tell you why. You were there, we had one of the biggest gatherings of black ministers and all at the convention in Philadelphia. Right? They're all there. Mary Muriel is there from the Urban League. The NAACP is there. How do you not have Mrs. Clinton come by?
And you asked her.
AL SHARPTON: We invited her. How do you not come by. These are the people that get your vote out. That's your base.
You lost Michigan, by what, 15,000, 20,000 votes? You could've got that if you mobilized two housing projects or three churches. Never touched them. So in many ways I think that the whole question of, "Oh we gotta reach out to the Appalachian and the blue collar workers and stop the identity politics" — well, that's one strategy. But what I'm saying is that you never worked your own base. You took your base for granted, so it's not that you need to go another way, you didn't identify with those in identity politics, that's why you had the lowest turnout you had around blacks in a long time.
She would call me, she came to my convention, but they never engaged us in the campaign. And how do you decide that those that were part of would help president Obama. All of a sudden you're going to flip the script, bring back your friends from the 90s, whose rolodex is outdated.
And I think that's where they did the wrong math in the Clinton campaign. They assumed that we'll go get all of this because everybody will stay here: young voters, black voters, Latino voters, like Obama, and it didn't happen.
I saw you tweeted and maybe got slightly beat up on Twitter about Roger Ailes. You said he'd been a — you didn't agree on much, and you protested him at times but his impact on US culture was undeniable. He's a study.
I wonder what you meant by that: He's a study?
AL SHARPTON: I mean that if you really want to understand how this culture became so divided, Roger Ailes gave a media voice to the Archie Bunkers of this country. And that needs to be studied.
As much as I disagreed with him, if somebody is able to penetrate, you need to know why. And uh, you know, those that did not agree, I mean Rachel Maddow said she considered him a friend, and certainly she didn't agree with him.
Did you know him well? Did you know him through the years?
AL SHARPTON: I met him.
Geraldo, who was very supportive of me on some things, would, had me come to his house once and Roger was there, and that was the first time we talked, that might have been 25 years ago, and every once in awhile before MSNBC, I would go do O'Reilly's show to debate him or Hannity, and I'd see Roger Ailes and we'd talk, and the funniest thing, he would always tell me, "You know," and he showed me a picture he took with Malcolm X back in the day, as a reporter.
And I used to tease him, I said, "So you're going to show me the Malcolm X picture. Why don't you show me the Nixon picture?" I said, "I think you might've interviewed Malcolm. You worked and helped create Nixon."
But you get to know people in this business. Doesn't mean y'all are allies. Because Fox News probably attacks me more than anybody since their inception. But again, you don't take it personal. I learned as a kid, you know my story Ben. I've been in this since I was 13, activism is like football: half the crowd in the stands is going to cheer you, the other half is going to jeer you. You don't get intoxicated by the cheers and you don't' get intimidated by the jeers. Your job is to get the ball across the goal line.
It seems like the President of the United States does not see things quite like that. He seems to take this stuff pretty personally.
AL SHARPTON: He takes it personally and I think part of it, he is he doesn't have a goal line he's trying to do. I gauge by, "Did we win certain legislation? Did we in New York do stop and frisk down. Won that. Did we preserve voting rights, and get the Justice Department under Obama to move. Did that. Did we start moving start police reform?" I've got goals. He has no goal! He's the goal! So therefore everything is personal.
I don't mind getting the crap beaten out of me if I can turn around and say to Abner Louima, “those cops went to jail for forty years.” And we did. So if you're only goal is you — yeah, we all have an ego, yeah we like the spreads in Vanity Fair. But that's not the goal. That's the means to the end. To him, that is the end. So if you're attacking him, you're attacking his goal.
With me, it's part of doing business. So when Ben Smith zings me on BuzzFeed or praises me, I gauge it on, "Is that going to help us against what we're doing now against Sessions." That's how I gauge it. Because at some point, you get old enough and mature enough to understand why you're out here. I think that the president was out there trying to win for Donald Trump, and now that Donald Trump has won the ultimate prize, he has no idea what he's going to do with it and why. Which is why everyday it’s a policy change.
I think he watches TV all day and everybody stays around him because they know that he'll change his mind. And that's scary to me for this country. It's scary. It's frightening.
Just ask you a last question, we were talking about this before, but can you tell me a little bit about your media diet? I don't want to ask about your actual diet. It's too depressing for me.
AL SHARPTON: (laughs) I'm a five AM riser. 5:15 I'm in the gym, in my building. 5:35, 5:40, I'm on the internet, depending on how long I work out. I don't try to kill myself. And I go, first I'll Google up what’s on the central news, and check in with Yahoo. Then I go to Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Real Clear Politics. Then I will go to Politico, Daily Beast, then I will go to the Root, the Grio, News One, Bossip, and Media Matters. You're probably surprised that I watch all of that, because I gotta know what the millennials are doing, I gotta know what old folks. So if I just go to Politico, I don't read Buzzfeed, I don't know what the younger people, I read it all.
And the real magic to what I do is I go outside, get in the car, and act like I have no idea what all you guys said about me, because I don't really care. (laughs).
On that note, thank you for coming on (laughing).
AL SHARPTON: That's a good way to close.
BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith hosts conversations on the intersection of politics, media, and technology — and all of 2017's insanity.
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