Armstrong Williams is a political commentator, entrepreneur, nationally syndicated columnist, and host of “The Armstrong Williams Show.” He’s also a passionate supporter of President Donald Trump and close friend to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. We spoke to him about his work in the media business, Black History Month, and Trump’s relationship with African-Americans. An audio recording of our interview is above and an edited transcript is below.
Rob Bluey: I think it’s fair to call you a media mogul of sorts. You are the largest black owner of TV stations in America, you’re prolific on Twitter and social media. As you survey the media landscape today, what’s your strategy for developing successful content and programming?
Armstrong Williams: You have, on the one side, the MSNBCs, the CNNs, and then on the other side you have the Foxes—one to the extreme right, one to the far left—and to me, they are both the same. Even when you speak about whether it’s health care, whether it’s the tax cuts, anything that the president does, anything that the left does, you know exactly what the right is going to say, and you know exactly what the left is going to say.
More and more, those two sides are really being drowned out, because obviously they’ve invested their capital, their allegiance into not a belief system, but into a party. When you invest so much into a party, you literally forget who you are. You could forget your value systems, and it’s no longer about you. You’re no more than a slave. You’re dictated to, and you just follow, the dictate of the party. I know, because I was once that person.
When you sort of shut out those opposites, which are the same, then somewhere you find those who search for the truth, who search for the balance, who doesn’t necessarily want to write a story, like most of the media does, who wants to be the judge, the jury, and the executioner of the president, arc of the left. You tell a story, and you allow people to come to their own conclusion because what you’ve learned in the climate that we’re in today, that Americans are very sophisticated. They know when they’re being misled. They know when they’re being manipulated, and they know when they’re being used for pawns.
One of the reasons why we have someone like a Donald Trump in the White House today is because of the dissatisfaction of the left and the right on Capitol Hill, because they work from the same platform. It’s just that when the left want to do something, which they know that their base is going to be infuriated by, they get the right to do it, and so therefore they get a pass, and they go on and do these famous stumps, and these speeches, and this outrage to pretend that they don’t like what is being said, but it supports … and it’s vice versa.
The American people, for so long, you look at the landscape, people are still dissatisfied, whether they have the Clintons in the White House, whether they have the Obamas in the White House. People are dissatisfied, and the reason why Trump does so well is because the American people have lost trust and faith in the people they elect. If the conservatives think they’re immune from this, and there’s only this ratcheted up anxiety and angst against the left, then they are mistaken.
Trump has been able to capitalize and just shake it up, throw all the bums out, and let us start from ground zero. What we try to do, while we may criticize legitimately the president on Charlottesville, on his s—hole comments, and when he says things that’s beneath him, that is not worthy of the grace, the class, the dignity of the White House, you must criticize him on that, because then you become a sycophant, and you’re no longer respected, and then the White House will use you to do their bidding as the right and the left will use somebody else to do their bidding when they realize that you’re willing to sacrifice your own principles to push an agenda that’s not necessarily in the best interest of the president, because the president cannot have someone around him always saying that everything he does is right, correct, and moral, because it’s not.
But still, the American people knew, when the president was running for president, when he took out all 17 [Republicans in the primary], that he took out the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, that he was a flawed man. He’s no different today, but you would hope that you have people that would help him find the character, the temperament, that is necessary to lead this country, because the American people really want this guy to succeed. But the problem is he is his own worst enemy. …
It’s irrelevant what I think. It’s irrelevant what my politics are. It’s irrelevant what party I belong to. What is relevant is that I take all sides without my trying to tell people and trying to guide them to a conclusion I want them to come to, and I just lay it out there and let people reach their own conclusions. That’s what you call journalistic integrity.
Ginny Montalbano: I was familiarizing myself with some of your more recent work this week, and something that I thought was really important, you mentioned “the victory is in the struggle,” that that’s an aphorism that you frequently use. Can you explain to us what that means and how you see it in your day-to-day life?
Williams: There was a time in my life early on when I found myself in storms of life. I’ve always believed I’m either in a storm, coming out of a storm, or going into a storm of life. I had, which many people know about, because when I write columns today, and I like to read all the comments, one of the things is the criticism.
If they’re not talking about my sexual harassment lawsuits, then they’re talking about my No Child Left Behind [controversy]. It’s, “Oh, this guy, he’s lost all credibility. He’s just a shill for the government.” While I did promote No Child Left Behind, and it was disclosed, what people have to understand, no matter how much you may have paid your dues … you never live down the fact that you compromised your integrity and your character. That may have happened in 2004, but even in 2018, I still have to live with that today.
It’s just like the Bible and God. God forgives us for our sin. He forgive us our adultery, our lying, and cheating, but there’s still a price we must pay, and it can be forever. What I learned from No Child Left Behind, even though I found myself in the valley for eight years, even though it was a struggle, we lost 95 percent of our business, we never laid off one employee, they never missed a paycheck, I learned something about my character. I learned about what my mother and father taught me, that you should always be moral, ethical, and legal in whatever you do, because sometimes, when the sun is so bright, you cannot necessarily see your flaws, because everything looks great around you.
But in the darkness, in the stillness of the night, when you think about your life and the struggles, and you think that you no longer have no friends, and then someone tells you that you’ll only be a footnote in life, you really test your faith. But in this struggle, there’s a piece that came over me, and if I just could hang in there, go back to the value system which I grew up on, learn my integrity, not be a shill for some party, be honorable, and even if none of us are going to ever be perfect, when we rise out of those storms, we will find the character and the leadership and the criticism that is necessary for us to move forward.
Because the problem is we lie to ourselves more than we lie to anybody else. It’s so easy for me to look at Rob and criticize him and look at you and criticize you, because that’s easier than looking at myself.
What I’ve learned in all my struggles is that when I work on myself 24 hours a day, which is the hardest work in the world, the world around me automatically improves. What I find myself, instead of trying to dig into someone else’s problem and their issues, while I do that as a journalist and broadcast on it, the most important work I have to do is work on myself. Since those days, I’ve never looked back.
Bluey: Armstrong, we’re celebrating Black History Month, and you’ve had a busy week. You’ve been to the White House. You were at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture with the vice president. You’ve been on Twitter sharing examples of black achievement. Can you tell us what it means to you?
Williams: It’s what it means to all of us. We all, sometimes we define success. Somebody could get a pair of tickets to a Wizards basketball game and they have courtside seats. Somebody could get an autograph of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Michael Jordan, or we could land tickets at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You get an invitation to sit in the president’s box while he’s speaking at the State of the Union, or you could be worth a billion dollars. Are you going to beat the lottery?
Success is defined in so many ways, but there’s something I think that we all can agree about and that is that from human slavery to segregation to civil rights, when we look back and realize how our brethren were treated in this country, it literally goes against everything that we as Christians and decent, God-fearing people have ever believed. They were packaged and then manufactured and raped and disregarded and dehumanized, and it’s just not who we are as Americans and never will be who we are as Americans.
As a result of, I think, the greatest sin against our country, we still have these vestiges of segregation and bigotry and poverty, and people are so willingly to use the excuse that the reason why they have not progressed is because of slavery. I don’t think there’s any American that is alive today that can ever use slavery as an excuse as of why they have not been able to progress.
We live in a society today where we will always have the poor and the struggling among us, but anybody who’s willing to work hard, have discipline, and my friend Dr. [Ben] Carson says this often, and I agree with him, being married, not having babies before you’re married, and getting a high school and college diploma, 92 percent of those people never end up in poverty.
It all goes back to morality. It really does, but we’ve sort of abandoned morality. We like to call racism, racism, and all of these things, but what we’re dealing with of the world that is broken, there is a spiritual illness that’s in this country, and so yes, while I know many people see me as an American who happens to be black, my race and your race has nothing to do with your achievement. Now, some people will say, “Well, people look at you and you get an opportunity.” Yes, there are a lot of people who get looked at but don’t get the opportunity.
Your race is not a passport to success or failure. It’s your character. It’s the choices that you make and how hard you work, and then time and chance happens to us all. My achievement, yes, I’ve been blessed. It actually surprises me, I guess, more than it does anybody else, because I don’t take it for granted that when I wake up every morning that I expect these things to continue.
I still have to work hard, and I have to still live in a certain way. When people are not looking at me, there’s a certain way. There are certain choices that I must make, because I’ve realized the choices I made before, and I find the better moral choices I make, the more I respect myself, the more I reinforce values and virtues, the better I become.
We employ hundreds of people across the country with our television stations and our media platform, and we create opportunities. Fifty-five percent of our workforce just happens to be Americans who are black. They’re not our employees and our executives because they’re black. They just have to be the best qualified. It’s just that we seek to find the best and the brightest, like Shermichael [Singletary], who you see on TV. We want to empower them … because at some point, we’re going to step off the stage.
That is the future, and so yes, I know it’s important that for blacks to feel that they see other blacks. It gives them encouragement that they can achieve and they can be, and that’s a good thing. But Black History Month, black history, black achievement, is a tribute to America, not to a race, not to a culture, is a tribute to the ideals and the freedom as to why people come here sacrificing their lives, leaving their families, because they realize this is a place of opportunity.
If people can come here, strangers who cannot speak the language at all, and in two or three years they’re speaking the language and are thriving, there is no excuse why most Americans cannot find at least at some point, at some seasons, realize the American dream.
Montalbano: You mentioned Dr. Ben Carson, and this week you posted a photo with him at the White House. Can you give us some insight into your relationship with him and the role he’s playing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development?
Williams: Dr. Carson is a brother to me. I’ve known Dr. Carson for 25 years. For the last 20-some years, I was his business manager, managing his money and his financial portfolios. When someone trusts you with their money and their finances, that is truly a bond of trust. All three of his sons have worked for me as producers. They’ve at least stayed with me in my home at least for a year, and they all have been a part of a growing media organization.
As Dr. Carson’s business manager, you get to know someone pretty well, and I say this often, I’ve known many people in my life. I’ve worked with people who have contributed greatly and mightily to this nation, but Dr. Carson, I always say this to people who ask me about him, if Jesus, if he were among us today, Dr. Carson without any doubt would be one of his disciples. There is just no question about that. It shocks me just how good, how moral, how ethical, and what a good man he is.
Why does it shock me? Because it makes me better. It’s because of my association with Dr. Carson that I become a better human being. He knows all my flaws, all my shortcomings, and he accepts me. No matter what he may preach, Dr. Carson is just a very good person. And when he was seeking the presidency as a presidential candidate, I was involved. I was probably called the invisible hand, but it was always present. I will admit that.
We trust each other. There’s a bond. There’s loyalty. What’s amazing is a testimony to the brotherhood is that we’ve never had conflict, because you know what? I’ve always been transparent with him. …
It’s sad that we live in a society today where people feel they cannot be themselves. They have to lie. They have to perpetrate something, perpetrate something that they’re not, but with Dr. Carson, you have the freedom to be who you are. He’s very forgiving, and at HUD, he’s doing some remarkable things there.
In fact, we were joking at the White House this week during President Trump’s celebrating Black American Achievement Month that [Office of Management and Budget Director Mick] Mulvaney and others are trying to cut his budget. I believe that if they cut his budget, Dr. Carson would literally resign. There’s no question. I believe that, but I was talking to him, and he said they kept his budget levels. I said, “Well, thank goodness, because I’m glad we’re not losing you, because I need you in the president’s ear, talking about morality, talking about goodness,” because he and the president have a very good relationship. I think that whether people see it or not, Dr. Carson has a very calming effect on the president. I think it’s very impactful.
I think of all the things that will be said when Trump is no longer in the White House, I think the story will be told about the impact Dr. Carson’s relationship had on the president’s character, on his morality. Even the president jokes about it now. Even you saw it a few weeks ago when Trump asked Dr. Carson to lead the Cabinet in prayer. Yes, that’s impact. Maybe subtle, but it’s important to have that kind of a good man, a moral man, because listen, the president’s not going to change Dr. Carson, but Dr. Carson can certainly impact the president.
Bluey: Well, let’s talk about the president. You raised a couple of issues earlier like Charlottesville and when Trump made some derogatory comments about some foreign countries. At the same time, the president said African-Americans are much better off under him. Unemployment hit its lowest rate for African-Americans. It seems like a complicated relationship, Armstrong. How do you best describe Trump’s relationship with the African-American community?
Williams: It’s not even really about his relationship with the African-American community, and it’s not even complicated. It’s very simple. Trump is an equal opportunity offender. He does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter.
For people to try to call Trump a racist and a bigot, it’s ridiculous. I mean, it doesn’t matter. He offended 17 candidates, including Dr. Carson. … Are you kidding me? This is who he is. He can’t help himself, and that’s what you have to accept. But Dr. Carson forgave him, put that aside, because he felt the country was first, because Dr. Carson is not petty. Dr. Carson is not like many of these Cabinet secretaries or the other people working for President Trump trying to establish a legacy.
Dr. Carson is an icon. He’s an iconic figure, and with his pediatric neurosurgery, where he had performed over 18,000 surgeries, in his entire surgical career only lost about 18 lives, and I don’t think he lost any in the last seven years of surgery. I mean, he’s the first to separate conjoining twins. That is something that the president respects.
The president lacks compassion for the poor. The president has an issue with the weak. When the president perceives you as weak, he pounces. I mean, it’s the most amazing thing that you can think of. Even with the African countries—and he was not talking about African countries. He talked about El Salvador. He talked about Haiti. It’s just people that are perceived as weak, and the countries are in dire straits. They’re in dire straits.
I think what he was saying, “Why bring those poor people here? We got problems of our own. Let them stay there, and let the country take care of them. We can send them money, but don’t bring them here,” but sometimes it’s how you say it. It’s the optics, but that’s why people like him, because most people would say that among their friends.
The president is just so transparent. He’s so authentic. He’s so real until it gets him in trouble with the media elite and their establishment. They find him embarrassing. They’re haughty in their ways, and they just cannot believe that this guy can get away with this. Why? Because the American people get up in the morning and can’t wait to see the president take them on, put them in their place. It’s just another form of entertainment, and he does it so well.
Montalbano: Now shifting gears a bit, you’ve written about the NFL, and after a tumultuous and very politicized season, do you think the NFL can bounce back, and if so, how?
Williams: They need to make the president one of their No. 1 fans. They need to work on him. I don’t think it’s difficult. I think it doesn’t take much to win the president’s trust, to get him to respect. Trump pouncing on the NFL and the kneeling has had a traumatizing impact on the league.
I know people, because I was at the Super Bowl, and many people, even in the playoffs, did not watch, because they said, “You know what? I just could not get past the disrespect of the flag. These people kneeling, we paid them all this money.” The president resonated. …
It’s another thing, too, when these players are going to win the NBA championship, they’re going to win the Super Bowl, and immediately, their media representative starts tweeting out, “Well, I’m not going to go to the White House if Trump is in the White House.”
That does not help. You should always respect the office of the president, and if you don’t want to go to the White House, keep it to yourself and just don’t show up. They’re just as much to blame as the president is. They are arrogant. They’re disrespectful, and there’s been a lot of disrespect of this president.
I’ve never, in the history of reading and living, ever seen a president treated with such utter disrespect and such dismissiveness. They can say anything about this president, and these athletes should show more respect to the president instead. … Because the bottom line, their opinion is, they should have no opinion is my attitude.
Yes, they should meet the president halfway. And by the time the NFL season starts in August during preseason in September after Labor Day when the new season starts, I think they could be off to a fast-track start, and they could restore the credibility that the NFL has lost.