Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson told CNBC on Wednesday he’s viewing the election between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden through the lens of being a businessman.
“Where I come out as a businessman, I will take the devil I know over the devil I don’t know anytime of the week,” Johnson said on “Squawk Box.”
Johnson, when pressed, refused to outright endorse Trump, instead saying as a longtime corporate executive he knows how the president will react to important issues of the day such as coronavirus and he does not have a handle on Biden would run the country.
“I know what President Trump has done and what he’s said he will do. I don’t know what Vice President Biden has said he will do other than masks, listen to the scientists,” the 74-year-old Johnson said. He suggested the coronavirus response should weigh the tradeoffs of “pandemic safety” versus “economy growth.”
By contrast, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has previously said “the path of the U.S. economic recovery will depend in large part on our success in containing the virus.”
Johnson has been a big Democratic donor over the years but also has spoken positively about Trump’s economic policy. In 2016, he said he declined a position in Trump’s Cabinet, saying it was not due to politics but because he could not deal with government red tape.
Johnson said the American people were the big losers in Tuesday night’s first presidential debate, saying the free-for-all was a waste of 90 minutes. He repeatedly suggested he didn’t learn enough in the debate about Biden, the two-term vice president under former President Barack Obama.
“What I had hoped he would do would be a reasonable, relaxed balance, if you will, in a debate where he would talk about specific policies, particularly as it impacts Black Americans,” said Johnson, founder and chairman of investment firm The RLJ Cos.
From a business standpoint only, not from a racial injustice standpoint, Johnson reiterated that it’s better for corporate executives to know what they’re getting in a president rather trying to guess.
“I would rather know who I’m going to deal with in the White House. I’m going to know what regulatory decisions they’re going to make. What fiscal policy decisions, what monetary policies they’re going to make than to be taking a chance, particularly when you have the turbulence of a pandemic,” said Johnson, who in the past has been complimentary of Trump’s business-centric policies.
Asked specifically Wednesday about Trump not explicitly condemning White supremacist groups during the debate, Johnson pivoted his answer to the coronavirus pandemic and said he’s not confident either Biden or Trump could have taken different steps to significantly reduce the Covid-19 death total.
The U.S. has the most coronavirus deaths of any country in the world, with 206,005, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That’s more than 20% of the global total, which exceeded 1 million this week.
Entrepreneur John Hope Bryant, who also founded a financial literacy nonprofit, said later on “Squawk Box” that he was disappointed with the state of the presidential race. “I don’t know where we go from here. This is not about picking ‘a devil,'” he said, referring to Johnson’s comments.
“Americans want vision and a plan and we lost out last night,” Bryant added. “It’s not about picking a devil. The fact that we got to this base of this conversation, where we’re talking about the devil we know or whatever that is, is troubling, concerning and frustrating.”