JAMESTOWN, Va. — President Trump hailed the contributions of African Americans to the building of the nation during a ceremony Tuesday paying tribute to democracy in the New World, even as he continued to wage war on some of his most prominent black critics.
The president’s elevated and scripted words honoring 400 years of representative government in the Western Hemisphere and the role played by African-Americans stood in sharp contrast to the acerbic attacks he made beforehand on a black congressman and his Baltimore-based district.
But the bitter, racial furor of recent days, punctuated by his latest comments assailing Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, followed Trump to Jamestown, where elected representatives first met in 1619. Virginia’s African-American state lawmakers boycotted his speech, calling the president an “emblem of hate” who does not represent the best ideals of the nation.
One state lawmaker, Ibraheem Samirah, stood and interrupted the president’s speech, holding up a sign that said, “Go Back to Your Corrupted Home” and “Deport Hate.” Samirah, a Democratic state delegate and a Palestinian American, shouted: “Mr. President, you cannot send us back. Virginia is our home.” He was led out politely by police officers.
Trump made no response nor did he reference the broader controversy during his speech but instead made a point of highlighting that this year is also the 400th anniversary of the first slaves brought to America.
“Today, in honor, we remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage,” he said, adding, “In the face of grave oppression and grave injustice, African Americans have built, strengthened, inspired, uplifted, protected, defended, and sustained our nation from its very earliest days.”
Just hours earlier, Trump again disparaged Cummings, whom he has accused in recent days of running a “disgusting” congressional district. “Baltimore is an example of what corrupt government leads to,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House. “I feel so sorry for the people of Baltimore, and if they ask me, we will get involved.”
Trump offered no evidence of corruption nor did he explain on what he based such an accusation. But he made clear he was unwilling to back down in a continuing war of words that has aggravated racial tensions and left many of his own advisers concerned that he was turning off suburban voters who could be a key to his reelection next year.
Facing questions about his apparent willingness in recent days to divide his supporters and opponents along racial lines, Trump insisted that he was “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” Then he called the Rev. Al Sharpton, another recent adversary, “a racist.”
This line of self-defense came a day after the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which represents elected members of the House of Delegates and the state Senate, said in a statement that its members could not “in good conscience sit silently” as a president who has promoted racial divisions is given such a prominent platform.
“It is impossible to ignore the emblem of hate and disdain that the president represents,” the caucus said in its statement. The statement added that Trump’s “repeated attacks on black legislators and comments about black communities” made him “ill suited to honor and commemorate such a monumental period in history, especially if this nation is to move forward with the ideals of ‘democracy, inclusion and opportunity.’ ”
The lawmakers’ protest came as Trump has employed racist tropes repeatedly in recent weeks. He told four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries, even though three were born in the United States and the fourth was naturalized as a teenager. In the last several days, he has repeatedly assailed Cummings and his “rat and rodent infested” majority-black district and targeted other foes like Sharpton, who he said “Hates Whites & Cops.”
Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has emerged as a major foil for the president as his panel presses investigations into Trump’s administration. Last week, the committee authorized Cummings to subpoena work-related e-mails and text messages on personal devices of White House officials, including Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law.
“I think that Representative Cummings should take his oversight committee and start doing oversight on Baltimore,” Trump said.
Aides said that the subpoena move last week riled Trump and helped fuel the anger that had been on public display since Saturday. The president has also bristled at criticism from Cummings of how detained migrants are being treated at the border, saying that the lawmaker should first worry about what Trump called the dismal conditions in his own district.
The ceremony Tuesday at the Jamestown Settlement Museum marked the first meeting of elected legislators in the New World. On July 30, 1619, a group of 22 representatives of plantations or settlements gathered in a church in Jamestown for the first time in what would be known as the House of Burgesses, the precursor to state legislatures and Congress in the centuries to come.
The event was already fraught for African-American lawmakers because of the anniversary of slavery. The caucus held alternative events in Richmond, including a wreath-laying at the Virginia state Capitol to honor African-American lawmakers who served after the Civil War.
But Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax, Virginia’s only African-American statewide elected official and a Democrat, attended Tuesday’s ceremony, saying beforehand that the twin anniversaries “far supersede the petty and racist actions of the current occupant of the White House.”