Trump administration targets diversity hiring by contractors

US President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, New Jersey, January 28, 2020.

American companies promising to hire more Black employees in leadership roles and teach their workforce about racism are getting a message from President Donald Trump’s administration: Watch your step if you want to keep doing business with the federal government.

Trump’s Labor Department is using a 55-year-old presidential order spurred by the Civil Rights Movement to scrutinize companies like Microsoft and Wells Fargo over their public commitments to diversity. Government letters sent last week warned both companies against using “discriminatory practices” to meet their goals.

Microsoft has brushed off the warnings, publicly disclosing the government inquiry and defending its plan to boost Black leadership.

But advocates for corporate diversity initiatives worry that more cautious executives will halt or scale back efforts to make their workplaces more inclusive out of fear that a wrong step could jeopardize lucrative public contracts. The agency has oversight over the hiring practices of thousands of federal contractors that employ roughly a quarter of all American workers.

“For tech companies that don’t care about these issues, the pronouncements are a dog whistle that they can carry on discriminating the way they already have,” said Laszlo Bock, an executive who ran Google’s human resources division for more than a decade and now leads software startup Humu.

Bock said those who do care, however, will see Trump's actions as political “sound and fury" that will be hard to enforce.

“It’s not at all illegal to strive to have a workforce that reflects the makeup of your nation,” Bock said.

Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 order was designed to “adjust the imbalances of hiring that are a legacy of our racist past,” said employment attorney and public contracting expert Daniel Abrahams.

“Trump is turning it around into an instrument of white grievances,” he added.

The president has also ordered the Labor Department to set up a new hotline to investigate complaints about anti-racism training sessions that Trump has called “anti-American” and “blame-focused.” The order signed last month calls attention to discussions of deep-seated racism and privilege that could make white workers feel “discomfort” or guilt.

Trade groups representing the tech and pharmaceutical industries are protesting Trump's new order, saying it would restrict free speech and interfere with private sector efforts to combat systemic racism.

Trump's executive order is a twist on Johnson’s 1965 directive and amendments that followed that set rules banning discriminatory practices at companies that contract with the federal government. It requires contractors to take “affirmative action” to open the doors to hiring minorities and women.

But the Labor Department is raising questions about the specificity of commitments made by executives addressing racial injustice in response to the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed May's police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in June that the tech company would double the number of Black and African American managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders by 2025. Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf made a similar commitment in June to doubling Black leadership over the next five years.

Abrahams said he doubts that the Labor Department has much of a case against companies that are trying to boost diversity, though “there’s some discrimination against white people that’s probably actionable,” and courts have danced around the question of what happens when employers set “inflexible” targets for racial quotas.

But he said it’s more likely the Trump administration is using the move as a political tactic ahead of the presidential election. Trump has criticized workplace training that he says is based on critical race theory, or the idea that racism is systemic in the U.S.

Dozens of companies have ramped up their efforts to bring more Black and other minority employees into their ranks since the protests over Floyd’s death shook the country and triggered a national reckoning over racism. Many have announced initiatives specifically targeting the African American community.

The CEOs of the 27 largest employers in New York — including Amazon and J.P. Morgan — formed a coalition to recruit 100,000 people from low-income Black, Hispanic and Asian communities in the city by 2030. More than 40 companies have joined a pledge to add at least one Black member to their board of directors by 2021.

Several other top government contractors have set numeric goals for adding Black or Latino employees, including consulting firms Accenture and Deloitte.

Johnny Taylor, the CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said he has asked for a conference with U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to seek clarity about the intention of the inquiries.

“I want them to ensure the companies are complying with the law but that investigation doesn’t result in a chilling effect on diversity and inclusion programs,” said Taylor, whose organization represents 300,000 human resource professionals across the world.

Taylor said he believed the policies announced by Microsoft and Wells Fargo amounted to aspirational goals, rather than quotas based on race. But he said announcing numbers may have opened companies to discrimination complaints.

Companies can protect themselves against claims of discrimination by widening their applicant pool to ensure a large enough number of qualified minority candidates, said Mabel Abraham, an assistant professor of management at Columbia University. The challenge, she said, is that companies have to show they have measurable diversity goals to attract talented minority applicants in the first place.

“Companies that are going to get the applicants are the ones that actually have minorities in top roles and that are putting out messages of race and diversity,” she said. “It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.”

The latest actions affecting contractors align with a broader Trump administration trend on matters of race.

The Education Department last month opened an investigation into racial bias at Princeton University over the school’s recent acknowledgment of racism on campus, and on Thursday, the Justice Department sued Yale University, weeks after prosecutors found the university was illegally discriminating against Asian American and white applicants, in violation of federal civil rights law.

Trump’s newest executive order also applies to educational institutions that receive federal funding. At least one university, the University of Iowa, suspended its diversity efforts in response the order.

Liz Tovar, the university’s interim associate vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the decision was taken because of “the seriousness of the penalties for non-compliance with the order, which include the loss of federal funding.”

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Republicans see 'grim' Senate map and edge away from Trump

Maine Sen. Susan Collins

Vulnerable Republicans are increasingly taking careful, but clear, steps to distance themselves from President Donald Trump, one sign of a new wave of GOP anxiety that the president's crisis-to-crisis reelection bid could bring down Senate candidates across the country.

In key races from Arizona to Texas, Kansas and Maine, Republican senators long afraid of the president’s power to strike back at his critics are starting to break with the president — particularly over his handling of the pandemic — in the final stretch of the election. GOP strategists say the distancing reflects a startling erosion of support over a brutal 10-day stretch for Trump, starting with his seething debate performance when he did not clearly denounce a white supremacist group through his hospitalization with COVID-19 and attempts to downplay the virus's danger.

Even the somewhat subtle moves away from Trump are notable. For years, Republican lawmakers have been loath to criticize the president — and have gone to great lengths to dodge questions — fearful of angering Trump supporters they need to win. But with control of the Senate in the balance, GOP lawmakers appear to be shifting quickly to do what’s necessary to save their seats.

“The Senate map is looking exceedingly grim,” said one major GOP donor, Dan Eberhart.

Republican prospects for holding its 53-47 majority have been darkening for months. But recent upheaval at the White House has accelerated the trend, according to conversations with a half-dozen GOP strategists and campaign advisers, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal deliberations.

The strategists noted the decision to rush to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett has not swung voters toward the GOP as hoped. Several noted internal polls suggested Republican-leaning, undecided voters were particularly turned off by the president’s debate performance and his conduct since being diagnosed with the coronavirus. It wasn’t clear that these voters would cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden, but they might stay home out of what one strategist described as a feeling of Trump fatigue.

Public polling shows Trump trailing Biden nationally but typically by smaller numbers in key battleground states.

“I think a lot of Republicans are worried that this is a jailbreak moment, and people who have been sitting on the fence looking for a rationale to stick with the president are instead abandoning the ship,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic.

To be sure, Trump has a history of political resilience. Wednesday marked the four year anniversary of the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women. Republicans quickly abandoned him then, and his poll numbers sunk, but he still won weeks later.

Trump's behavior this week hasn't prompted that sort of GOP rebuke. But Republicans expressed clear frustration with Trump’s erratic approach to negotiations on a stimulus bill aimed at mitigating the economic toll of the pandemic. Trump abruptly called off talks, then tried to restart them Wednesday, causing the stock market to plummet and then somewhat recover.

On Monday, as he returned from the hospital, a still-contagious Trump paused for a photo op at the White House, removed his mask and later tweeted that people should not fear the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.

“I couldn’t help but think that sent the wrong signal,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, whose tight race is among a handful that could cost Republicans control of the Senate. “I did not think that it set a good example at all.”

Collins began airing an ad this week that urges voters to vote for her “no matter who you’re voting for for president."

PHOTO: Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during a Senate Armed Subcommittee hearing on preventing sexual assault where she spoke about her experience of being sexually assaulted in the military on Capitol Hill, March 6, 2019.

In Arizona, another endangered Republican, Sen. Martha McSally, struggled when asked whether she was proud to serve under the president during her Air Force career.

“I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes,” McSally replied during a debate against Mark Kelly, one of multiple Democrats who have bested their Republican incumbents in fundraising.

Democrats have long considered Maine and Arizona, along with Colorado and North Carolina, top targets in their effort to gain the four seats they need to win Senate control. (It's only three if Biden wins the White House.) But the race for Senate majority has been widening into reliably Republican states, now including Iowa, Alaska, Kansas and Montana. In North Carolina, meanwhile, Democrat Cal Cunningham's recent sexting scandal has complicated his drive against Republican incumbent Thom Tillis.

Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, is suddenly scrambling.

Trump won the state by 14 percentage points in 2016. Still, a major Republican political committee aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began spending nearly $10 million on TV and radio ads this week attacking Graham's Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison.

Donors have not given up on trying to hold the Senate. As Trump’s fundraising has plateaued in recent months, it has spiked for Republican outside groups that are supporting House and Senate candidates.

The massive influx of new money for House and Senate committee will enable them to flood competitive races with advertising that embraces conventional Republican themes. (The South Carolina TV ad by the Senate Leadership Fund shows pictures of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and says, “Liberal Jaime Harrison is their guy, not ours.”)

The intention is to extend a lifeline to candidates who otherwise would have relied on the president’s political operation for support, according to two Republican strategists with direct knowledge of the House and Senate campaign plans.

Still, there's little doubt Republican senators' fortunes are linked to the president and his volatile political instincts. In the highly partisan environment, ticket-splitting — voting for one party for president and another for Senate, say — has become increasingly rare. In 2016, Republican Senate candidates lost in every state Trump lost and won where Trump won.

One GOP adviser said most Republican candidates are not running ahead of Trump in polling their states. And when his support drops, their support usually does, too.

Even in red states, Republicans are starting to make clear they aren't following Trump when it comes to the pandemic.

Sen. John Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle editorial board on Monday that Trump “let his guard down" and said his diagnosis should be a reminder to "exercise self-discipline.”

In another GOP bastion, Republican Senate nominee Roger Marshall borrowed Trump's slogan for a “Keep Kansas Great” bus tour on Tuesday, but not his health advice.

“Of course, I think everyone should respect the virus,” said Marshall, a doctor. “I’m really encouraging everyone to wear a mask when they can, to keep their physical distance, wash their hands, all those types of things.”

Marshall was quickly reminded of his party's competing forces. As he spoke, he was briefly interrupted by a woman who appeared to be a opponent of wearing masks, yelling, “Stop telling people that!”

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'An embarrassment': Trump tweet angers pandemic survivors

Dizzy with a soaring fever and unable to breathe, Scott Sedlacek had one thing going for him: He was among the first people to be treated for COVID-19 at Seattle's Swedish Medical Center, and the doctors and nurses were able to give him plenty of attention.

The 64-year-old recovered after being treated with a bronchial nebulizer in March, but the ensuing months have done little to dull the trauma of his illness. Hearing of President Donald Trump's advice by Tweet and video on Monday not to fear the disease — as well as the president's insistence on riding in a motorcade outside Walter Reed Medical Center and returning to the White House while still infectious — enraged him.

“I’m so glad that he appears to be doing well, that he has doctors who can give him experimental drugs that aren’t available to the masses,” Sedlacek said. “For the rest of us, who are trying to protect ourselves, that behavior is an embarrassment.”

COVID-19 has infected about 7.5 million Americans, leaving more than 210,000 dead and millions more unemployed, including Sedlacek. The U.S. has less than 5% of the globe’s population but more than 20% of the reported deaths.

Yet the world's highest-profile coronavirus patient tweeted on Monday, as he was due to be released from the hospital following a three-day stay: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

He reiterated the message in a video Monday night, saying “Be careful,” but “don't let it dominate you.”

“You’re going to beat it," he said. "We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines.”

The advice fit in with Trump's downplaying of the virus, his ridiculing of those who wear masks to protect themselves and others, and his insistence on holding rallies and White House events in contravention of federal guidelines. But emergency room doctors, public health experts, survivors of the disease and those who have lost loved ones were nevertheless aghast, saying his cavalier words were especially dangerous at a time when infections are on the rise in many places.

Marc Papaj, a Seneca Nation member who lives in Orchard Park, New York, lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to COVID-19. He was finding it tough to follow the president’s advice not to let the virus “dominate your life.”

“The loss of my dearest family members will forever dominate my life in every way for all of my days,” Papaj said, adding this about Trump: “He does not care about any of us — he's feeling good.”

Dr. Tien Vo, who has administered more than 40,000 coronavirus tests at his clinics in California’s Imperial County, had this to say: “Oh, my Lord. That’s a very bad recommendation from the president.”

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 The county is a farming region along the Mexican border that, at one point, had California's highest infection rate. Its 180,000 residents are largely Latino and low-income, groups that have suffered disproportionately from the virus. Cases overwhelmed its two hospitals in May.

“The president has access to the best medical care in the world, along with a helicopter to transport him to the hospital as needed,” Dr. Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington's School of Public Health, wrote in an email. “The rest of us who don’t have such ready access to care should continue to worry about covid, which has killed a million people around the world in just a handful of months."

Trump supporters still not convinced about the threat

Some of Trump's supporters said they wouldn't be swayed by the White House outbreak: Wearing a mask is a choice, and to mandate its use limits freedom, said Melissa Blundo, chairwoman of the “No Mask Nevada” PAC.

“I’m not saying the coronavirus isn’t real. I’m not saying that it isn’t a pandemic," she said. "I believe tuberculosis could be called a pandemic when it kills a person every 21 seconds, but we haven’t shut down the entire world. I just find it interesting that we are taking this particular pandemic and shutting down economies.”

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show 8,920 cases of tuberculosis in 2019. In 2017, the most recent year it reported deaths, 515 died from the bacterial lung infection.

Candy Boyd, the owner of Boyd Funeral Home in Los Angeles, which serves many Black families, said Trump’s comments were infuriating and an "example of him not living in reality.” The funeral home receives fewer virus victims now than it did in the spring, when it was several a day, but people continue to die, she said.

“We have people dying and this is a joke to him,” Boyd said. “I don’t take that lightly. This is sad. This is absurd.”

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