Trump at Benedict

President Donald Trump listens as Alice Johnson speaks during the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College in Columbia on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Evan Vucci/AP

Some Benedict College grads weren’t thrilled to see their alma mater host President Donald Trump on campus last week.

They said the college got played, and perhaps it did. The historically black Columbia college gave the president a podium to complain about impeachment, compare himself — without irony — to prison inmates and get an award (though not from Benedict).

But as acting White House Chief of Staff — and future fall guy — Mick Mulvaney says, “Get over it.”

Now, it isn’t surprising that Benedict alumni would not particularly welcome the man who has referred to neo-Nazis as "good" people. 

And it certainly didn’t help that he’d just used the word “lynching” to describe the ongoing impeachment inquiry.

Which suggests a basic lack of historical and cultural knowledge, or simple human empathy … or both.

But no one should hold any ill will toward the historically black college simply for allowing Trump to speak during its criminal justice forum last week. That’s just unreasonable.

When it’s the president, everyone should show some respect — for the office, if not for the person. Even if it’s not always reciprocated.

Here’s what happened:

Benedict hosted a criminal justice forum along with the nonprofit 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. The plan was to allow Democratic presidential candidates to come in and take questions from students.

The president was also invited, although Benedict President Roslyn Artis didn’t expect he’d show. But it turns out the allegedly Bipartisan Justice Center was founded by Ashley Bell, a Georgia lawyer who’s also a Trump appointee to the Small Business Administration.

More interestingly, Bell moonlights for the Republican Party. In fact, he’s the highest-ranking African American in the Republican National Committee, where he works on black community outreach for the GOP.

Which certainly needs some work.

Obviously, Bell thought the president speaking about criminal justice at an HBCU would make for, in parlance, good optics. That's what this was all about.

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Of course, neither the White House nor Bell wanted any of those pesky students asking potentially embarrassing questions. So students were advised to stay in their dorms, probably in hopes they wouldn’t go out front and protest. The auditorium was filled with Trump acolytes, including Gov. Henry McMaster and S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas.

Who aren’t currently enrolled at Benedict.

Only seven real students were allowed to attend the presidential address. (Actually, 10 were invited, but three had better things to do). Don't expect any crowd shots when the photo-op becomes a campaign ad.

Because the event was turned into little more than a rally for supporters, Artis and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin tried to get the event moved off campus. But the White House wouldn’t budge.

So the upshot is that Trump got to come onto the campus, speak for an hour and receive an award. Take that “lynching” news cycle.

Post and Courier reporter Andy Shain asked Artis the obvious question: Did the college get played?

“Your knee-jerk reaction is probably yes,” Artis said. “I think (Bell) wanted this time for his candidate to be at the table, and he was willing to do what he needed to make this happen.”

Artis says that HBCUs have an odd relationship with this administration. While the president occasionally says some stuff that is, well, racist, he has also increased federal funding for financial aid that helps their students.

And Trump supported the First Steps Act, which reduces prison sentences and allows judges to sometimes avoid minimum mandates (that’s ostensibly why he got an award).

The First Steps Act is the sort of criminal justice reform the college is interested in, hence the forum.

Now, Artis worries that this publicity will hurt Benedict, but it shouldn’t. These things happen in big-time politics.

“When you sit back and reflect, it’s a sitting president and they get to make the rules sometimes,” she says.

Exactly. Chalk it up as a bit of real-world education for Benedict students and alumni, and take pride that the college led by example.

It showed that just because someone has different politics, and often says things that are offensive or even reprehensible, sometimes it’s better to be the bigger, more mature party.

That’s a good lesson, even — and perhaps especially for a president.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.