President Donald Trump met Thursday with national and Detroit-area African American leaders in Michigan to discuss how distressed communities can recover from COVID-19. 

Ja’Ron Smith, deputy assistant to Trump and deputy director of the Office of American Innovation, traveled with Trump to his Michigan meeting and explained what steps the commander-in-chief is taking to revitalize underserved communities’ economies.

Smith also explains how Trump is ensuring minority communities have access to the medical help they need during COVID-19. Listen to the interview with him on the podcast, or read a lightly edited transcript, pasted below.

We also cover these stories:

  • Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Open Skies Treaty.
  • Senate Democrats are denouncing the term “Chinese virus.”
  • Actress Lori Loughlin, one of the most prominent parents involved in the college admissions scandal, will plead guilty.

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Ja’Ron Smith, deputy assistant to President [Donald] Trump and deputy director of the Office of American Innovation. Mr. Smith, thank you so much for being here.

Ja’Ron Smith: Thanks for having me.

Virginia Allen: Every community across America has been affected by COVID-19, but some have certainly been affected more than others, such as minority communities and underserved communities.

Now, on Thursday, President Trump met with national and Detroit-area leaders, African American leaders in Michigan to discuss how distressed communities can recover from COVID-19. Can you tell us a little bit more about the president’s priorities for that meeting?

Smith: Sure. So the meeting is a listening session to learn more about what’s working and what’s not working, insofar as resources that we’ve sent.

As you may know, through the CARES Act, we sent about $2 billion worth of health care resources to community health centers to help with testing and things like if an individual happens to contract the disease, … they can get the help they need to recover.

We’ve also done a number of different things for minority businesses through the form of [personal protective equipment] and carving out $30 billion for minority-owned depository institutions, as well as [Community Development Financial Institutions].

Allen: Wow, so encouraging to hear. And as you travel and as you talk with African American communities right now, what are some of their greatest concerns, and how is the White House responding specifically to those concerns that they’re raising?

Smith: COVID has put a spotlight on a lot of historic disparities that existed in the African American community, like issues of access to capital or health care disparities.

What we’re trying to do is put together infrastructure that will not only help minority communities or underserved communities like African Americans deal with those disparities now, but fix them for the future.

Last week, [Housing and Urban Development] Secretary [Ben] Carson made some recommendations to the president to help improve access to capital, as well as improve access to health care, and so we’re going to continue to work through that and partner with some of those leaders that we met in Detroit to create a lasting impact.

Virginia Allen: That’s so exciting. Now, as you mentioned, you’re trying to expand that access. Could you take a minute and just tell me a little bit more of what does that actually look like to expand that medical access during COVID-19 for African American communities?

Smith: Sure. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the president, but we hope to announce soon more details on what that may look like.

What I can tell you, what it looked like before is, through the CARES Act, we’ve allowed for individuals to get access to health care free of charge for COVID-related illnesses. And so that’s really been helpful for many communities.

We’ve also expanded access to telehealth resources so that individuals could use their connectivity online to get help from a health care provider.

As you can imagine, since so many areas aren’t surrounded by hospitals in underserved areas, … we’ve also created some partnerships with CVS and Walgreens to expand testing capacity.

What we’re looking at is seeing if we can take a look at expanding that connectivity so people who don’t have resources to connect can get access to those health care systems, and also looking at ways that we can maybe invest in more mobile health care services.

All of these things are being examined and we’re working with a number of different local leaders who have expertise in this area to learn what’s the best way to create outcomes.

Allen: That’s great. That’s exciting.

Now, we have seen that the African American community tragically has been more affected by COVID-19 in a negative way, but considering the work that the president is doing, that those in the White House are doing right now to connect those in minority communities, like you say, with the medical care that they need, whether that’s through telehealth or other means, are you optimistic that we’ll begin to see a decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths in those minority communities?

Smith: I’m optimistic that we can set up infrastructure to help deal with it. We also have to encourage, not only minority communities, but people in general not to have a fear of going to these health care systems.

Since COVID, what we’ve seen in some community health centers is a decline in attendance and taking advantage of some of the resources, and that doesn’t even speak to just COVID-related illnesses. It’s illnesses that maybe have some preexisting conditions, where they may, because of fear of going to the hospital, let those illnesses get worse.

So I think overall, we’re going to work with community leaders to encourage more people to access these health providers, and at the same time, create more access.

Allen: The president has tasked the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council to lead the way in making sure that underserved communities are getting that assistance that they need. Could you tell me a little bit more about the work of this council and who sits on it?

Smith: Sure. I should have led with that. The White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council was created in 2018 to help revitalize low-income and underserved areas throughout the country, and their chief tool was leveraging opportunity zones.

Since the beginning of the crisis on the pandemic, the president has renewed the focus of that council, and so we had infrastructure in place to deal with the holistic issues of the underserved communities. And we’ve used that infrastructure to implement many of the resources I just discussed through the CARES Act.

So, many of the agencies like—[the Department of Health and Human Services], the Department of Education, [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]—all sit on this council, including Treasury.

So we’ve hosted a number of different webinars and … had webinars with over a half a million African American leaders and Hispanic leaders to get ideas on how we can best create resources and partnerships to deal with COVID response.

That’s been the focus of the council on implementing some of the CARES resources, but as I mentioned last week, the council also made some recommendations to the president, and it included expanding access to capital, expanding on ways for health care resources, expanding ways for affordable housing and distance learning.

So we’re taking a whole-of-government approach, but we’re going to need a whole-of-America approach to deal with some of the realities of some of these communities around the country.

Allen: And you mentioned opportunity zones. Would you mind just first taking a second and explaining the important role that opportunity zones have been playing in America since they were created under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act? And then just explain what role the president does see them playing now as a tool to revitalize the economy.

Smith: Sure. Opportunity zones is a designation for low-income census tracts with high poverty and high unemployment. And that allows for individuals who have a capital gain to defer those capital gains.

And then the fact that they leave those capital gains in those low-income census tracts does make those opportunity zones, with the long term, they reduce the amount of capital gains tax they have to pay all the way down to zero if they keep the capital gain or the investment into that low-income census tract for 10 years.

Those tracts have shown some enormous success, and we hope to come up with a best practices report in the next month or so that could talk about all of the individual communities around the country.

They set up 100 different zones that have showed a lot of progress since the enactment of the law. What we’re hoping to see is how we can maybe further leverage that to bring more investment into these low-income census tracts. …

Since there’s a long-term incentive, we can certainly depend on using that in the future, in perpetuity, through COVID.

Allen: Yeah, that’s great.

Well, a top issue of the president has always been the economy, and that’s an issue that right now is so much so on everyone’s minds. And before COVID-19 hit, African American unemployment was at a record low. Are you confident that we’re going to be able to get back to that point once again?

Smith: Well, we certainly got the right man in charge. President Trump has done an excellent job of ushering in the economic boom. And if I had to put my money on anyone who can help get us back to prosperity, it would be President Trump.

We’re going to continue to push pro-growth ideas and deregulatory systems that would encourage more of the private sector to do what they do best and that’s create jobs and create outcomes for the American people.

Allen: Let’s talk just for a moment about how the president has prioritized helping historically black colleges and universities. President Trump signed legislation to provide HBCUs with over a billion dollars in stimulus funds. Why was this such a priority to the president and so critical for HBCUs to receive these funds right now?

Smith: Sure. President Trump realized that these institutions are an epicenter of the black community, and he wanted them to not only be able to flourish in the 21st-century economy, but continue to be a part of the American DNA.

So we’ve done work to make sure that they get permanent funding and they don’t have to go to Congress every year to ask for appropriations.

But even in the CARES Act, we were able to get a number of different resources to these institutions.

For one of the HBCU Digest periodicals that talk about HBCUs, they recently just talked about how that historic investment has led to saving one of the colleges, Bethune-Cookman. And so we’re continuing to make new investments into these institutions, and they’re going to be a key pillar into the work that we do to recover.

Allen: Absolutely. No, they certainly will be.

Obviously, one of the most basic needs that everyone has right now is food, and those in distressed communities are at a greater disadvantage to have that access to food, especially healthy food. But last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the launch of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Could you take a second and just tell me a little bit about what that program is?

Smith: Sure. I don’t want to go into too many of the details, but essentially, to make it plain and simple, it’s creating more access to healthy food for low-income families.

It’s the idea that the Department of Agriculture has put into our budget the last couple of years, but through the pandemic and the need for food in some communities, we figured out a way to basically get food boxes delivered directly to people, so they don’t have to wait in these long lines.

Allen: Oh, that’s so exciting to hear. Well, Mr. Smith, you are in meetings and conversations with the president on a regular basis. You traveled with him to the meeting in Michigan. Is the president optimistic that we’re going to be able to turn this thing around and get back to a place of economic prosperity?

Smith: Yes, we’re very optimistic. And not only that, we’re willing to put the sweat equity and muscle it takes to make it happen.

This president has always been about results and outcomes. And you’re going to continue to see that through the rest of his presidency as we continue to flourish and rebound from this pandemic.

Allen: Is there one message that the president is really focused on Americans hearing and understanding right now?

Smith: We’re all focused on always making America the greatest country ever. And this return to greatness is going to usher in even more greatness, more than we’ve ever seen. And so I really have some confidence of that.

I’m also confident in the work ethic, and the fact that the American resilience is real and we’ll continue to partner with our local stakeholders around the country to make America a great country and a beacon of light for the rest of the world.

Allen: Well, Mr. Smith, we certainly thank you for the work that you’re doing right alongside the president. We are very thankful for your leadership during this time.

Smith: OK. Thanks so much for your time.