NEW ORLEANS — Less than 10 minutes into White House aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s appearance on the stage at the National Association of Black Journalists convention here, things got tense.
Manigault-Newman was on her feet, microphone in hand, pacing the stage in a heated argument with moderator Ed Gordon, host of BET’s “Weekly.”
“If you want to talk about Donald Trump, have a problem with Donald Trump,” Manigault-Newman said. “I’m not going to stand here and defend every single word and decision.”
“No, I’m asking you about Donald Trump,” Gordon replied. “I’m not going to let you railroad this.”
The session only went downhill from there.
Manigault-Newman’s presence on stage, along with journalists and activists focused on police brutality and family members of black men killed by police, roiled the annual convention of black current and former journalists and public relations professionals.
In protest, multiple panelists declined to participate in the panel. But the event went on when Gordon agreed to fill in as moderator, he told the audience Friday.
Manigault-Newman was preceded on stage for “Black and Blue: Raising Our Sons, Protecting our Communities,” by two women whose relatives were killed in encounters with police.
But a line of conference attendees snaked through the hallways of the Hilton Riverside Convention Center, all anticipating what they would soon see when Manigault-Newman appeared: drama.
Manigault-Newman, the former “Apprentice” reality TV star and now director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, didn’t disappoint.
She began by telling the story of the loss of her father and brother to violence in Youngstown, Ohio, a story that she said has allowed her to understand the pain of families who have lost children or loved ones to gun violence.
At the White House, she told the audience, she brings people to the table to have influence on policy discussions.
“I fight on the front lines every day,” Manigault-Newman said, prompting gasps of disbelief from people in the audience. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
“Are you suggesting that I just walk away?”
But the moment Gordon attempted to turn the topic to Trump, Manigault-Newman objected.
“You immediately go to Donald Trump!” Manigault-Newman protested, suggesting later that Gordon was attempting to “walk all over” her “aggressively.”
Moments later, Trump’s voice billowed over the loudspeaker for several seconds before his face flashed on two large screens in the room.
“I said, please don’t be too nice,” Trump said in a video of his speech to police officers on Long Island July 28. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head.”
“I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
Manigault-Newman was asked whether Trump’s comments were appropriate for a commander in chief, and she replied simply, “No. Next question.”
Gordon later suggested that there was a debate among the panel organizers about whether Manigault-Newman would be asked about the Trump administration during the event.
“It would be foolhardy that we could assume that anyone would come here and sit here and not ask certain questions,” Gordon said.
Manigault-Newman could not say what, if anything, she had done to address these issues within the administration, but continuously defended her role as a convener.
She said that part of the problem is an unwillingness of activists to come to the table. Civil rights leaders have “refused to meet with the White House,” she added.
And she argued that the issue of police brutality is front and center for the Trump administration, despite the president’s recent comments, which were widely interpreted as endorsing the use of excessive force by officers.
“It’s on the front burner because I’m pushing the issue and raising the issue,” Manigault-Newman said.
It wasn’t long before the audience was in open disbelief — and discomfort — as dozens of cellphone cameras captured the exchanges.
A group of people stood with their backs turned to the stage as Manigault-Newman continued to spar with the moderators and panelists.
At one point, she accused the moderator of making light of her family’s tragedy, which he denied.
“I have it on tape, boo,” Manigault-Newman replied.
“Ok boo, play it,” Gordon replied tersely.
NABJ President Sarah Glover at one point faced the audience herself to explain Manigault-Newman’s appearance at the conference.
Before giving the microphone to Glover, Gordon called the panel a “quagmire” that had “reached the point of diminished returns.”
“We invited Donald Trump, President Trump, various members of the Cabinet, including Omarosa,” Glover said. “Her personal experience is her personal experience.”
The panel is “about how we can further the conversation about the issues happening and surrounding black men,” Glover said.