When Donald Trump defiantly insisted there was “blame on both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, Senator Tim Scott chose not to mince his words.
“It’s going to be very difficult for this president to lead if, in fact, his moral authority remains compromised,” Scott, the US Senate’s only black Republican, said in August after a white supremacist ploughed a car into counter-protesters, killing one and leaving several injured.
A month later, the South Carolina senator met privately with Trump at the White House in the hopes of elevating the discourse on race relations in America.
A source briefed on the meeting said the rare one-on-one on Wednesday was the result of Scott’s blunt comments in the aftermath of Charlottesville, in which he said he would not “defend the indefensible” and emphasized the need for the president to have more personal interaction with people of color.
Following the meeting, Scott said Trump appeared to acknowledge the damage caused by his statements on Charlottesville.
“He’s obviously reflected on what he has said, on his intentions and the perception of those comments,” Scott told CBS News. “I’ll let him discuss how he feels about it, but he was certainly very clear that the perception that he received on his comments was not exactly what he intended with those comments.”
Scott has been far less equivocal about the underlying motivations that spilled into full view in Charlottesville.
“Racism is real. It is alive. It is here,” he told Vice News last month.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, described the meeting as “very productive”, while noting Scott did not express displeasure directly with the president over his response to the Charlottesville attack.
“They talked about [Charlottesville] pretty in depth, but the focus was primarily on solutions moving forward,” Sanders told reporters at the White House press briefing.
“That was what both people came to the meeting wanting to discuss, what we can do to bring people together, not talk about divisions in the country.”
Scott, who got his start at the Charleston County council before serving in the South Carolina house of representatives, has long been regarded as a rising star within the Republican party, which for years has struggled to make inroads with minorities. In 2012, he was appointed to the Senate by Nikki Haley, then the governor of South Carolina, to fill a vacancy left behind by the retiring senator Jim DeMint.
They were big shoes to fill – DeMint was a godfather of sorts in conservative politics – but more important was the historic nature of the moment. Scott was the first black senator from the south in more than 100 years.
In 2014, Republicans in South Carolina largely cleared the way for Scott. He did not face any notable primary opponents and won a decisive victory in a special election.
Since his arrival in the Senate, Scott has been a reliable conservative, largely voting in line with party orthodoxy. He is ardently opposed to abortion rights, has steadfastly supported efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and has opposed gun control measures.
More recently, he’s also proved to be a strong ally of Trump. Scott has voted in line with the president 94% of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. In July, Scott was one of 22 Republican senators who signed a letter urging Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
At times, Scott’s political choices have sparked criticism from the same communities whose perspective he says he wishes to elevate.
The senator spoke with unusual candor about the backlash he faced over his decision to support Trump’s attorney general nomination of Jeff Sessions, who was blocked by a Republican-led Senate for a federal judgeship in 1986 after making racially charged comments.
“You are an Uncle Tom, Scott. You’re for Sessions. How does a black man turn on his own,” Scott said, reading aloud the harassment he faced on social media in a 30-minute speech. “Tim Scott … doesn’t have a shred of honor. He’s a house negro like the one in Django.”
“I left out all the ones that used the N-word,” he added. “Just felt like that would not be appropriate.”
It wasn’t the first time Scott had captivated an audience with deeply personal reflections on race.
In July of 2016, Scott delivered a series of floor speeches about his experience as a black man in America in the wake of a pair of fatal police shootings of black men – Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana – and the killing of five police officers in Dallas.
He spoke with raw emotion of “the humiliation” he felt when he was pulled over by the police seven times in one year, with an officer suggesting in one instance that the car Scott was driving might be stolen.
Scott also recalled being denied entry into an office building even as a senator, despite wearing the pin on his lapel that distinguishes him as a member of Congress.
“The officer looked at me with a little attitude and said: ‘The pin I know, you I don’t. Show me your ID,’” Scott said.
In 2015, after an avowed white supremacist killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, Scott joined Haley in calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.
In a statement at the time, Scott said he did not believe that the “vast majority of folks who support the flag have hate in their hearts” and that “their heritage” was a part of the state’s complex history regarding race.
But he added: “However, for so many others in our state, the flag represents pain and oppression.”
On the other side of the discussion Wednesday was Trump. The president,who has referred to himself as the “least racist person”, has a long and complicated relationship with matters of race that pre-date his political career by several decades.
In 1973, the justice department sued Trump Management for racial discrimination against African Americans at their rentals in New York. Trump, who was named as a defendant, settled the case. And in 1989, Trump placed a full-page ad calling for the death penalty for five black and Latino men who were convicted of rape in the notorious Central Park Five case. The men were later exonerated.
Later, Trump’spernicious accusations that America’s first black president was born in Kenya made him a hero of the “alt-right”.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump was pilloried for his approach to courting minority communities. In speeches intended to appeal to African American voters, Trump cast inner cities as “war zones” plagued by an epidemic of murder and violence.
“You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good,” Trump said of African Americans during a rally in a predominantly white Michigan suburb last August, “You have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed – what the hell do you have to lose?”
A source briefed on the meeting said Scott’s office had already been in talks with the White House all year on some of issues affecting people of color, such as historically black colleges and universities and poverty.
But Scott’s criticism of Trump’s response to Charlottesville – namely how the president failed to understand why his words, both in terms of what he said and didn’t say, mattered – added to the significance of the meeting.
The Congressional Black Caucus, of which Scott has declined to be a member, has dismissed the notion that the Trump might evolve in the Oval Office, declining an opportunity in June to meet with the president. The group’s executive board previously met with Trump in March, but its members suggested the president’s overtures were designed to produce a photo op as opposed to a substantive interest in the policy issues concerning people of color.
Scott accepts that views on race can change. As a young politician in South Carolina, he developed a rapport with Strom Thurmond, a long-serving US senator, who was at one time a leading advocate for segregation and an opponent of civil rights.
When Scott was first elected to the Charleston city council in 1995, Thurmond sent him a handwritten note congratulating him on his victory. One year later, Scott agreed to co-chair Thurmond’s final Senate campaign.
Asked by the New York Times in 2010 how he could support a man who held those views on race, Scott said: “The Strom Thurmond I knew had nothing to do with that.”
He added: “I don’t spend much time on history.”