AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump is fighting back against Omarosa Manigault Newman using two of his go-to weapons - insults with offensive language and legal action. Manigault Newman, who was the highest ranking African-American on the White House staff before she was fired in December, has now written a tell-all book and is accusing Trump of, among other things, using the N-word years ago on the set of his reality television show, "The Apprentice." In a tweet today, Trump denied that any tapes of him using the racial slur exist and said the word is not in his vocabulary. The president also called Manigault Newman, quote, "wacky and deranged and a dog." NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins me now to talk about this. Hey there, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
CORNISH: Even while President Trump is trying to defend himself against this charge of racism, he uses words like dog and low life to attack her. So is this hurting his attempts to essentially persuade Americans that he doesn't attack people based on race?
RASCOE: For people who are concerned about Trump's language, it definitely undercuts Trump's defense of himself when it comes to issues of race. Manigault Newman raised this question in an interview with MSNBC. Basically, if he'll say this about her publicly, what is he saying about her privately? And he already had a heavy lift. His approval rating among black Americans has been low since he was running for president. And a lot of this had to do with him pushing this conspiracy theory about former President Obama that he hadn't been born in this country. That's not true, and that was seen as a racist dog whistle against the first black U.S. president.
And it's not just black people who are looking at these issues. A CBS poll came out this week that found that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of racial issues and race relations. The larger context for Trump's comment about Manigault Newman is that this isn't a one-off for him, that he's been attacking black athletes, attacking LeBron James, Maxine Waters and other prominent black figures.
CORNISH: We can ask this question of many things, but why is he doing this?
RASCOE: (Laughter) This is always the question with Trump - is he acting intentionally because he thinks his language appeals to his base, or is he simply acting on instinct and not really thinking about the political ramifications? White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says that the insult for Manigault Newman was not about race, and basically Trump says offensive things about a lot of people.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president has said similar things about a number of individuals, certainly, that are not African-American or any other minority. I can simply talk to you about the policies and the person that the president is.
RASCOE: And Sanders says the person that Trump is is someone who is working for all Americans. She pointed to the decline in unemployment for African-Americans since Trump took office and to his support for prison reform, which would help black people who have been disproportionately affected by the justice system.
CORNISH: Did Sanders say whether she's actually talked to the president about whether he's used racial slurs?
RASCOE: She was asked this. It was an interesting answer. She pointed to what Trump said on Twitter because she said she hadn't asked him directly. She says she hasn't heard him use the word, but she would not guarantee that there's not a tape of him saying it. She said, quote, "I can't guarantee anything."
CORNISH: There was also some legal action taken today to try and stop Manigault Newman from making further allegations - right? - as she continues on this book tour. What's going on?
RASCOE: Yeah. The Trump campaign filed an arbitration action against her in New York to basically try to stop her from talking about the campaign. She did sign a nondisclosure agreement when she joined...
CORNISH: Joined the campaign, not the administration.
RASCOE: Not the administration. So she did tell the AP in response that she would not be silent. So it seems like she's going to fight this. And so now you have this legal action playing out, and then you have Manigault Newman who is also alluding to releasing more of these secretly recorded conversations with the White House and campaign officials, so you may have more of that coming out.
CORNISH: Ayesha Rascoe covers the White House. Thank you so much.
RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.