WASHINGTON, D.C. — A top White House aide on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s tweets about Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) and his Baltimore district as a justified response to the lawmaker’s criticism of administration border policies and investigations into the president.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney insisted that Trump’s comments were not racist, Cummings is black, but he said he understood why some people could perceive them that way.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that Cummings “has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA……” In a second tweet, he added that Cumnmings’s district “is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
In 2015, Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders spoke of Baltimore in a similar characterization as Trump. “Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you’re in a wealthy nation,” Sanders said of Baltimore, according to a Baltimore Sun report. “You would think that you were in a Third World country.” In 2017, Sanders tweeted, “Residents of Baltimore’s poorest boroughs have lifespans shorter than people living under dictatorship in North Korea. That is a disgrace.”
Trump’s repeated tweets at Cummings, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, marked the latest broadside on a prominent lawmaker who has targeted Trump. Two weeks ago, Trump sparked a nationwide controversy with tweets directed at four Democratic congresswomen.
Mulvaney claimed that Trump’s tweets were simply a reaction to what he considers to be inaccurate statements by Cummings about conditions in which children are being held in detention at the U.S.-Mexico border.
At a hearing last week , Cummings accused Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan of wrongly calling reports of filthy, overcrowded border facilities “unsubstantiated.”
“When the president hears lies like that, he’s going to fight back,” Mulvaney told “Fox News Sunday.”
On Saturday, Trump posted a series of tweets claiming Cummings’s Baltimore-area district is “considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States.”
Trump’s comments against Cummings drew swift condemnation from Democrats over the weekend, including some of the party’s presidential candidates. Statements from a spokesman for Maryland’s Republican governor and from the lieutenant governor defended Cummings’ district and its people.
On Sunday, Trump was unbowed by denunciations of his comments, tweeting “there is nothing wrong with bringing out the very obvious fact that Congressman Elijah Cummings has done a very poor job for his district and the City of Baltimore.”
In a Sunday tweet, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro said, “Trump’s pajamas rage-tweeting is bad for the county. But point But pointing out that Baltimore is one of the worst run cities in America, rife with crime and plagued by poor living conditions, isn’t racist. It’s evident to anyone with two eyes and a functioning pre-frontal cortex.”
The Baltimore Sun, through an editorial, responded to Trump’s tweets with the headline “Better to have a few rats than to be one.”
Opinion writer Seth Barron said in the New York Post that “Trump is right about Baltimore — and the Democrats know it.”
Mulvaney insisted that Trump would criticize any lawmaker, no matter the person’s race, in a similar way if Trump felt that individual spoke unfairly about his policies.
“It has absolutely zero to do with race,” he said. “This is what the president does. He fights, and he’s not wrong to do so.”
Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, said Trump was “right to raise” the challenges faced in Cummings’ district at the same time while Cummings and other Democrats are “chasing down” the Russia investigation undertaken by Robert Mueller and pursuing “this bizarre impeachment crusade.”
The chief of staff later told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he understands why some people view Trump’s comments as racist, “but that doesn’t mean that it is racist.”
“The president is pushing back against what he sees is wrong,” he added. “It’s how he’s done it in the past and he’ll continue to do it in the future.”
Cummings is leading multiple investigations of the president’s governmental dealings. He responded directly to Trump on Twitter, saying, “Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”
Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro said Trump was engaging in “racial priming.”
“Using this language and taking actions to try and get people to move into their camps by racial and ethnic identity. That’s how he thinks he won in 2016 and that’s how he thinks he’s going to win in 2020,” Castro said on CBS.
Cummings’ district is about 55% black and includes a large portion of Baltimore. It is home to the national headquarters of the NAACP and Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The city has struggled with violent crime, with more than 300 homicides for four years in a row. It has crumbling infrastructure and a police department under federal oversight.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.