NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — A racial comment from an organization staffer and leading conservative movement activist rocked the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU) here on Saturday.
Late Friday night at the annual Ronald Reagan dinner at CPAC, ACU communications director Ian Walters made a racial comment about former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who is black. Steele was the RNC chair when Republicans retook the House majority in 2010’s midterm elections during the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Walters said from the stage on Friday night:
My wife Carin and I met at CPAC 2009—we’re a CPAC couple. It was the year that Rush Limbaugh spoke. He made a little bit of history. We were somewhat lost as a group. We had just elected the first African American president and that was a big deal. That was a hill that we got over and it was something that we were all proud of and we weren’t sure what to do. And, a little bit of cynicism, what did we do? This is a terrible thing: We elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he was a black guy. That was the wrong thing to do.
WATCH: At the Ronald Reagan Dinner at CPAC, ACU Communications Director Ian Walters said the RNC hired Michael Steele as chairman in 2009 "because he’s a black guy." pic.twitter.com/g6YcyLET5w
— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 24, 2018
The comment from Walters rocked CPAC’s final day, garnering national attention across the media. Steele himself, who hosts a radio show on SiriusXM’s POTUS channel with liberal host Rick Ungar, was not happy with the comment or the ACU response.
“We’ve been together a long time buddy, we’ve been through battles together,” Steele told ACU chairman Matt Schlapp as they appeared together for an interview Schlapp conducted with Steele and Ungar for their program on Saturday morning.
“I’m sorry—“ Schlapp started in response.
“I appreciate you,” Steele replied.
—that we’re even having this conversation. I would have been here sooner if I possibly could be. I want to address all your concerns but I just want to say all that matters to me in all this is the friendships I have and they’re important to me. We’re going to have some disagreements in all this and people are going to say things that are a little sharp. But you’re not only my friend, I love you and I have a lot of respect for you. And I know that you have had not an easy path in politics and you and I have been in some of these back rooms in this very place on some of those paths—and I just wanted you to know that.
I appreciate that and my concern and we were just talking about this, my concern about what was said last night at the dinner was how it reflects on this organization of which I have been a part for a long time and I have spoken at and supported but more broadly what it says about the party that we’ve both been active in and involved in and that concerns me and I don’t know what gave Ian in his role as communications director the comfort to think that he could go before this body and I’ll put it direct: Disrespect you as the chairman, disrespect the attendees, did he somehow think this would be acceptable to say? And that to me is the frustration because look you and I as you say we’ve been in the wars together. I’ve known Matt and his family from the very beginning. It ain’t about that—it’s about how we as Republicans and conservatives fighting the same good fight, as you know disagreeing at times, can get others in the party beyond this seemingly reliance to go there, to put everything in a racial context, and to undermine the very efforts of the leaders like yourself and myself and expand this reach into communities of color across the country?
I guess I would say the first thing, in all candor, Ian is my colleague at work and he is my friend and I love Ian and I’m not going to separate myself from Ian. I think he said some words that the worst people who are our political enemies could take in the worst way. This is radio, you don’t get to see Ian’s skin color in this radio program, but Ian is also somebody who understands what it is like to have racial challenges in the political system… That being said, Michael, this is the Conservative Political Action Conference. Everyone decides what lane they want to be in politically. You have been in a lane where you’ve been rather critical—I go on MSNBC, I watch you, you watch me. You have been rather critical of some of the more conservative aspects of the Trump phenomenon and this Trump agenda. You’re a good pro-life man, but there’s a lot of other things that you might spend time on this radio show talking about. But I think what Ian was getting to the heart about is there are people who are critics of some of the things you did as chairman. And there could be a truth to the fact that some people picked you as chairman, because we constantly do this in Republican circles ‘hey here’s a new face for the party’ and he feels there are criticisms of how you were chairman. Now, can you accept that that might be where he’s coming at and not a racial—
“No, no,” Steele replied.
“I’m going to say this—he won on the sixth ballot,” Ungar interjected. “How do you get picked because of your color when you win on the sixth ballot?”
“With all due respect—“ Steele followed up.
“Come at me,” Schlapp said.
“What the hell does my race have to do with any of that at the end of the day?” Steele asked Schlapp. “What does the color of my skin have to do with anything you just said? Yeah, I disagree with the direction this president is taking conservatism in this country because I call B.S. on a lot of it. When you can’t stand your ground on Charlottesville, I’m going to call it out. I have to be authentic and true to myself.”
“You do,” Schlapp said.
“So, that has nothing to do with—“ Steele started to continue.
“But it’s not just Charlottesville where you’ve been a critic of the president, it’s a lot of things,” Schlapp said.
“I’ve been a critic on policy—a lot of things,” Steele said. “So you mean to tell me as a black conservative, to put it in that context, but let alone as a conservative, that I can’t be critical of the president?”
“You can be, but as you know there are a lot of people—I think take race out of it,” Schlapp said.
“Yeah,” Steele said.
“If you look at the criticisms—“ Schlapp started.
“But he injected race into it,” Steele told Schlapp of Walters.
“He did—I would agree with you,” Schlapp said. “Those words that tumbled out of his mouth, I believed were unfortunate words.”
“It was stupid—it was not unfortunate,” Steele said. “Call it what it is. It is stupid to sit there and say that we elected a black man chair of the party and that was a mistake. Do you know how that sounds to the black community?”
“Yes, I know,” Schlapp said.
“And do you know how that sounds to Americans?” Steele asked.
“Yes, I do,” Schlapp said.
“Then do you know how they equate that level of stupidity to conservatism?” Steele asked. “That’s the objection I have about the moment we’re in.”
“I know, but he called you—he called you and he felt terrible about what he said,” Schlapp said.
“I know he did, I talked to him,” Steele said. “But that doesn’t change anything.”
“It’s important for people to know that he realized the words could come out in a way that looks like—“ Schlapp said.
“I said that,” Steele said.
“But don’t take the worst out of what he said,” Schlapp said. “You know him. This is where you have to have some grace—“
“Wait a minute,” Steele interjected. “What the hell do I have to be graceful for?”
The heated interview and exchange only got more intense over the next several minutes. Video of the whole exchange was posted by SiriusXM on YouTube later in the day and can be watched here:
Schlapp then appeared on Breitbart News Saturday on SiriusXM Patriot Channel 125 and addressed the matter further there.
“First of all, as I told Michael, I think the words that tumbled out of Ian’s mouth were unfortunate,” Schlapp said on Breitbart News Saturday. “I’ve known Michael a very long time. He’s a very good man. Nobody would have expected that to be part of last night’s performance or agenda. Ian was given recognition at the dinner spontaneously that he was unaware of. He was preparing to play with his band, which he plays after CPAC at the Reagan Dinner every year. That was the mode he was in—you know the mode you get into in life? He was in the mode that ‘I’m done, I’m going to go have fun with my music.’ Out of nowhere I announce him to the stage. He whispers into my ear and says ‘hey I don’t really do speeches, it’s not what I do.’ I was like ‘just tell them thanks.’ Well he said thanks and then he kept going and then he used these unfortunate words. But I do think that, and I tried very hard to do it to Michael’s face because I don’t want to do it behind his back, and I’m sure he’s going to listen to this as well. What Michael has to understand is Ian called him and apologized and he used words around race that I think he very much regrets. That being said, what he was trying to say is there were a lot of people who were very critical and all of his performances—they’re not performances, his heartfelt answers on MSNBC, his constant criticisms of Donald Trump, the fact that he is a Republican and likes to say ‘I come to CPAC all the time,’ none of us really view him as part of the conservative movement. He’s much more a really part of that moderate kind of maybe center a little bit to the right Republican. He was the RNC chairman and a lot of people fall in love with the idea of the people who should lead our party, they’re constantly on this diversity bandwagon. There are some who said when you pick people who don’t do the world’s best job and they’re maybe not ready for a job because you thought it was good optics for television and everything else. So there are critics of Michael Steele as chairman, it’s one of the reasons why he didn’t win in his re-election bid. I think he has to own that he has critics, and he has critics in this hallway because we watch him on MSNBC, we watch him on Morning Joe, we watch him on Hardball, and he says almost the opposite things that I say.”
When it was noted for Schlapp during the Breitbart News Saturday interview that it was during Steele’s chairmanship of the RNC that the 2010 GOP wave retook the House majority for Republicans—a majority that remains today—Schlapp responded further.
“I would say that it was not part of our program to be critical of Michael Steele,” Schlapp added about Walters’ comments. “Michael Steele was chairman of the RNC a long time ago. I will say this: He’s an American and he’s entitled to his opinion and you are entitled to your opinion. People can argue whether or not they feel Michael Steele really led the party well, and was a transformational leader—they’re allowed to have their opinions. I will tell you CPAC is not really focused on that, but it is a spontaneous program where things get said.”
Walters has not replied to a followup request for comment from Breitbart News.
Walters, however, did tweet that he apologized to Steele.
Sometimes when you speak, the words that come out do not reflect what’s intended. Many of us were critics of how Chairman Steele performed at the RNC. He is a good man, and he did his best.
— Ian B. Walters (@IanBWalters) February 24, 2018
I spoke with Mike Steele and apologized because the words I used do not capture my heart https://t.co/fG5vUqPqQp
— Ian B. Walters (@IanBWalters) February 24, 2018
In an email later on Saturday, Steele told Breitbart News it is unfair to say this criticism was about his performance, because he did deliver a Republican majority in the House that still stands eight years later–among other successes.
“I would only add that my on air conversation with Matt Schlapp spoke for itself,” Steele said in an email to Breitbart News. “The talking point CPAC is putting out that ‘people had a problem with my chairmanship’ is quite frankly silly—they act like I didn’t know that or that I actually gave a damn that they did. I had a job to do; and, unless Matt, Ian and others had a problem with my winning back the House, governorships, and state legislative races, then why are we talking about me or my chairmanship at a CPAC dinner eight years later? It’s because it wasn’t (and isn’t) about my job performance. It’s about Ian’s view, expressed openly at a CPAC dinner, that my election was solely based on my race—not my qualifications as a former County chairman, State party chairman, or Lt. Governor. And this coming from party leadership that ‘PREACHES’ it’s not about race, it’s about merit.”
LISTEN TO MATT SCHLAPP OF ACU ON BREITBART NEWS SATURDAY AT CPAC: