(NEW YORK) — Dozens of black pastors pressed Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Monday to address what some called his use of racially charged rhetoric, with several describing a meeting that became tense at times as attendees raised concerns about his blunt language.
While some left the gathering at Trump’s skyscraper in midtown Manhattan with hopes their message had resonated, Trump said afterward he had no plans to change his approach, which he said had taken him to “first position in every single poll.”
“The beautiful thing about the meeting is that they didn’t really ask me to change the tone,” Trump said. “I think they really want to see victory, because ultimately it is about, we want to win and we want to win together.”
At a rally later Monday in Macon, Georgia, Trump told a nearly all-white audience of about 5,000 that the meeting was “inspiring” and “unbelievable.”
“It was a really terrific day,” he said.
But several pastors who met in New York with the billionaire real estate mogul, who has held a consistent lead in preference polls of GOP voters for several months due in large part to his aggressive style of campaigning, said the session was a bit more complicated.
Bishop George Bloomer, who traveled to the gathering from North Carolina, said he arrived in New York with concerns about “the racial comments that have been made and the insensitive comments that have been made,” including an incident earlier this month in which a black protester was roughed up by Trump supporters at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama.
Trump said after the incident, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
“I asked him: ‘Are you a racist? People are saying that about you,’” Bloomer said. “If you are seeking the African-American community to support you, at the least, you’re not helping with these kind of things that are going on.”
Bloomer said he told Trump that “if he wants to have our ear as a community, to at least tone down the rhetoric some kind of way, tone it down. And he said that he would.”
Pastor Al Morgan of Launch Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina, said part of the group’s discussion focused on whether Trump should lighten up a bit.
“What he said was that he would take that into consideration,” Morgan said. “So the thing was trying to be who he is, so you have to remain true to yourself. And, in his defense, that’s gotten him where he is. So the thing is, how do you convey a person’s heart with their personality? That’s the dilemma.”
Trump is seeking to replace President Barack Obama, who won two terms in the White House by bringing together a coalition of young people, single women and black and Hispanic voters.
Democrats maintain an enormous edge with African-American voters, with Republican presidential candidates faring poorly among minorities in the past two elections. In 2012, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks, 93 percent of black voters backed Obama. In 2008, the number was 95 percent.
But Trump has been courting the support of evangelical black clergy members and other African-American leaders as he works to broaden his appeal in a crowded Republican field.
In Georgia, radio host and failed 2012 presidential hopeful Herman Cain was among those who introduced Trump. Cain was the lone major black Republican candidate four years ago. Trump also interrupted his own 75-minute speech to bring another black Georgia Republican to the microphone. Bruce LeVell, who has served as party chairman in suburban Atlanta’s Gwinett County, announced his endorsement, drawing roars from Trump’s backers.
Monday’s meeting with the pastors was originally promoted by the campaign as an endorsement event, in which he would receive the backing of 100 black evangelical and religious leaders.
But many of those invited to the meet-and-greet objected to that description, saying they accepted the invitation only because they wanted to challenge Trump about what he’s said as a candidate.
Trump kicked off his campaign with a speech in which he said some Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, and recently drew criticism for retweeting an image of inaccurate statistics that vastly overrepresented the number of whites killed by blacks, among other errors.
In a letter published by Ebony magazine, more than 100 black religious leaders wrote that “Trump’s racially inaccurate, insensitive and incendiary rhetoric should give those charged with the care of the spirits and souls of black people great pause.”
They also expressed concern that Monday’s gathering would “give Trump the appearance of legitimacy among those who follow your leadership and respect your position as clergy.”
Pastor Victor Couzens, from Cincinnati, Ohio, said he nonetheless felt an obligation to attend the meeting to hear what Trump had to say.