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After inflammatory attack, Trump accuses Democrats of playing ‘the Race Card’

Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has been criticized by the president.
Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has been criticized by the president.Erin Schaff/The New York Times/file

WASHINGTON — President Trump denied Sunday that his attacks on an African-American congressman and his “disgusting, rat and rodent infested” district were racist even as he fired back at Speaker Nancy Pelosi by targeting her district as well.

As he has done repeatedly when challenged for inflaming racial tensions, Trump sought to turn the accusation around by alleging that Democrats were playing “the Race Card,” as he put it on Twitter. His top aide went on television to say the president was being “hyperbolic,” not racist.

“ ‘Elijah Cummings has had his chance to address it (crime & conditions in Baltimore) for decades, and he hasn’t gotten it done,’ ” Trump wrote on Twitter, citing comments by Pete Hegseth, a host on “Fox & Friends,” the show that triggered his initial outburst Saturday with a segment assailing the African-American congressman, Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. “How can he get it done when he just wants to use his Oversight Committee to hurt innocent people and divide our Country!”

Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has sharply criticized Trump for his handling of the border, particularly for the conditions in which migrants are being held. In recent days, he was also authorized to subpoena work-related e-mails and text messages on personal devices from Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and other White House officials.

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Trump’s assault on Cummings escalated the racial debate after his previous attacks on four first-term Democratic congresswomen of color, whom he told to “go back” to their home countries even though three of them were born in the United States and the other is a naturalized American citizen.

In his Twitter burst Saturday, the president said Cummings had failed his Baltimore-based district, which he described as a “very dangerous & filthy place” where “no human being would want to live.”

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Cummings, Pelosi, and other Democrats fired back, as did The Baltimore Sun, which published a blistering editorial defending its hometown.

“We would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post,” the editorial said. “Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity. Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.”

Democrats appearing on the Sunday talk shows came to Cummings’s defense and assailed Trump for playing racial games. Appearing on “This Week” on ABC, Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said the president was “disgusting and racist,” while Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, noted that Trump does not attack impoverished rural white districts.

“Our job is to bring people together to improve life for all people,” Sanders, who himself lamented conditions in West Baltimore in 2015 as resembling “a Third World country,” said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “Not to have a racist president who attacks people because they are African-American. That is a disgrace. And that’s why we’re going to defeat this president.”

Trump’s White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, defended the president on the Sunday shows and insisted that there was nothing racist about his attack on Cummings’s district.

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“Does the president speak hyperbolically? Absolutely,” he said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “Have we seen this type of reaction for him before? Yes, and you will again because he pushes back. He fights back when he feels like he’s attacked, and what Cummings said this week was wrong.”

On “Fox News Sunday,” he said Trump made a fair point about the state of affairs in Cummings’s district. “It has absolutely zero to do with race,” he said, adding: “Have you seen some of the pictures on the Internet? Just this morning from the conditions in Baltimore, Maryland. Have you seen them?”

Although Baltimore has struggled with crime in recent years, Cummings’s district, which is 53 percent African-American, also includes vast suburban stretches and has a median household income in the top half of congressional districts.

Other Republicans were left in the uncomfortable position of once again being asked to answer for the president. “Look, I didn’t do the tweets,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “I can’t talk about why he did what he did. But I’m very disappointed in the people, like Congressman Cummings, who is attacking Border Patrol agents that are trying to do their job.”

At a recent hearing, Cummings confronted Kevin K. McAleenan, acting secretary of homeland security, about conditions for detained migrants, sharply criticizing the secretary’s contention that his department was doing its “level best” to manage the situation.

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“What does that mean?” Cummings demanded. “What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower? Come on, man. . . . None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings.”

During his campaign and at points during his presidency, Trump has insisted that “we’re fixing the inner cities,” but made no effort in his weekend tweets to explain what if anything he is doing to fix Baltimore. Instead, he went after Pelosi, herself a native of Baltimore and the daughter and brother of former mayors who chastised him for his original tweets, saying that her San Francisco district was “not even recognizable lately.”

“Someone please explain to Nancy Pelosi, who was recently called racist by those in her own party, that there is nothing wrong with bringing out the very obvious fact that Congressman Elijah Cummings has done a very poor job for his district,” the president wrote.

“Just take a look, the facts speak far louder than words!” he continued. “The Democrats always play the Race Card, when in fact they have done so little for our Nation’s great African American people. Now, lowest unemployment in U.S. history, and only getting better. Elijah Cummings has failed badly!”