By Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa
President Trump was already seething about Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.
He was frustrated that the oversight committee Cummings (D-Md.) chairs authorized a subpoena last week that could sweep up emails from his daughter and son-in-law. He was annoyed that Cummings stood alongside Democratic leaders discussing the possibility of impeachment following testimony by the former special counsel.
And he was particularly incensed when the longtime Democratic lawmaker lambasted Trump’s acting head of Homeland Security over reports from the border of “a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower.”
“None of us would have our children in that position,” Cummings said during a hearing earlier this month. “They are human beings.”
Trump, one senior White House official said, “was looking for a reason to attack.”
For Trump, that reason came shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday morning, when Kimberly Klacik, a Baltimore area Republican who is Black, appeared on “Fox & Friends” talking about video footage she had taken depicting Cummings’s district as overrun by trash and blight.
Almost exactly an hour later, the president weighed in with tweets calling Cummings’s district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” saying that “no human being would want to live there” and dubbing the congressman “a brutal bully.”
He then went to his golf course. The onslaught against Cummings would span more than two full days and 19 individual tweets, during which Trump would also accuse Cummings of doing “NOTHING for his very poor, very dangerous and very badly run district,” bemoan his “radical ‘oversight’ ” and, finally, accuse Cummings — an African American lawmaker who represents a district that is nearly 53 percent Black — of being “racist.”
Trump’s sustained attacks against Cummings reveal the extent to which the president stokes a grudge, immerses himself in Fox News and spews back its more right-wing content into the world — forcing his allies to scramble to respond. And in picking a fight with Cummings, Trump again dragged both his party and the nation into another round of racial animus that, 16 months from Election Day, threatens to shape — if not totally overwhelm — the 2020 campaign.
This portrait of Trump’s feud with Cummings, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, is the result of interviews with 18 White House officials, Republican lawmakers and Trump allies, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments.
“Every day, you shake your head,” said former Ohio governor John Kasich (R), who says he is considering a 2020 primary challenge of Trump. “Attacking a major city is like nothing we’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen this kind of behavior and rhetoric. And frankly, I’ve never seen so many people just ignore it. It’s shocking.”
Kasich was also critical of his fellow Republicans, almost none of whom publicly condemned the president for his latest round of racially charged tweets: “There is a culture of silence in the party,” he said. “I guess they just want to gulp and get through to tomorrow.”
At the Capitol late Monday, Republican senators repeatedly avoided the issue as they made their way to the chamber. “Another act of political theater,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said, declining to answer whether he agrees with Trump’s charge that Cummings is racist. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) urged reporters to call her office. “I don’t do hallway interviews,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, “I like Baltimore and I like it better when the president talks about policy,” but declined to say anything further.
Trump’s broadside against Cummings was a topic of discussion during at least two White House meetings Monday morning — one with senior staff and one with a broader group of the communications team. Internally, there was some agitation and discomfort with the attacks, which unfurled largely over the weekend, aides said.
Some aides privately viewed Trump’s attacks as a distraction or politically unhelpful, likely to take the focus off other key events this week, including a Rose Garden signing ceremony Monday for a bipartisan Sept. 11 victim compensation fund and a previously planned rally in Cincinnati on Thursday evening. Other aides were more than happy to amplify his attacks on Democratic lawmakers representing struggling inner cities, but were reluctant to defend the more personal tweets, including the one that dubbed Cummings “racist.”
“If racist Elijah Cummings would focus more of his energy on helping the good people of his district, and Baltimore itself, perhaps progress could be made in fixing the mess that he has helped to create over many years of incompetent leadership,” Trump wrote in one tweet. “His radical ‘oversight’ is a joke!”
Klacik did not respond to requests for comment. In a tweet, she seemed to suggest Fox News had reached out to her after she had filmed and posted to social media footage of trash-strewn areas of Cummings’s district, which she said was done at the urging of local residents who had sought her help in removing the debris.
“There is a crisis at the border but there is also a crisis in Baltimore,” Klacik says in the segment.
The president used Klacik’s segment as a launchpad, and later retweeted another video of hers showing dilapidated Baltimore row homes and heaps of trash and upturned furniture.
Unlike another recent controversy, in which Trump fired off a racist tweet urging four congresswomen of color, all U.S. citizens, to “go back” to other countries, Trump allies quickly began magnifying his message. Trump has long denigrated diverse, liberal enclaves — including cities in states that did not vote for him in 2016 — and many in the president’s orbit saw political advantage to pushing at least a portion of his latest attack.
“Most American cities have been under Democratic control for many decades and look at the homeless problems in San Francisco, for example,” said Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman. “It’s a terrible situation. The residents are fleeing, so certainly it’s an opportunity to highlight failed liberal leadership.”
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, said Trump wanted to elevate officials seen as more liberal.
“Whenever the members of Congress like [Rashida] Tlaib or [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] or Cummings are the focus, that means the focus is not on [Kamala] Harris or Joe Biden. Every time people go crazy, it’s still cemented in some people’s minds that these people are maybe the modern Democratic Party,” he said.
Trump allies highlighted 2015 comments by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic candidate for president, likening Baltimore to a “Third World country,” and video of former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh talking about being able to smell the rats and dead animals in her city.
The Republican National Committee plans to use the next set of Democratic debates, Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit, to further highlight what they say is Democratic negligence when it comes to inner cities. “With the Democrat debate in Detroit this week, will CNN have the guts to ask about these issues?” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in a tweet. “Democrats have been in complete control of Detroit for decades. They should have to answer for the lack of progress for this community and rampant corruption of its leaders.”
The president, meanwhile, seemed more than eager to continue with his barrage. By Monday, he expanded his tirade to include Al Sharpton, a controversial civil rights leader and MSNBC host. Responding to a photo of Sharpton heading to Baltimore for a news conference attacking Trump, the president — who has known Sharpton for decades and attended fights with him at Trump’s Atlantic City casino — tweeted that Sharpton is “a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score.”
“Hates Whites & Cops!” Trump concluded.
In an interview, Sharpton accused Trump of using “race as a political strategy for 2020,” and said he attacks prominent minorities with more vitriol than he often uses on white opponents.
But, Sharpton added, while Trump may be “playing to the stereotypes that his base wants to hear,” the tactic could backfire. “What he’s mistaken is that he’s energized a lot of people,” Sharpton said. “Every time he attacks us, he’s only increasing the coalition and energy to go after him.”
The president also met with a group of inner-city pastors at the White House Monday afternoon, a meeting that two administration officials said was on Trump’s schedule before the Cummings controversy but that he decided to publicize. While most of the pastors were positive toward Trump during the private gathering, one brought up his rhetoric and said that it sometimes overshadowed his accomplishments, according to one person with direct knowledge of the meeting.
He also tweeted an endorsement Monday of a black Republican in Kentucky he called a “STAR” for attorney general.
Several conservative leaders on education and urban issues encouraged Trump on Monday to follow the Twitter battle with Cummings with a visit to Baltimore that is centered on policy rather than personality. White House aides have privately discussed sending Trump to the city, but no final decisions have been made, said two people with knowledge of the discussions.
“It wouldn’t hurt the president to go and make a point of taking on big-city Democratic governance, to talk about what’s gone wrong in American cities. It’s a totally real issue,” said conservative commentator William J. Bennett, a former education secretary under Ronald Reagan. “Conservatives and Republicans need to be part of the solution here. And even if there were protesters and Al Sharpton came, the president could keep talking and make his points.”
At least one Trump ally did sound a public note of criticism. “I condemn the statements and will continue to condemn them,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served as Trump’s communications director for 11 days in 2017.
“While I’m his friend and his friends know he’s not a racist, he’s the leader of the free world,” Scaramucci continued. “That mantle of leadership requires him to be as far from racism as possible. You can’t be having a debate in 2019 about whether the sitting president is a racist.”