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Trump plays down John Lewis’s achievements, criticizes him for skipping inauguration

“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” the late Representative John Lewis said days before  Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017.
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” the late Representative John Lewis said days before Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017.Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK — President Trump played down the accomplishments of Representative John Lewis, the recently deceased civil rights icon, and criticized him for not attending the Trump inauguration in an interview conducted while Lewis was lying in state at the Capitol.

The comments, aired on “Axios on HBO” Monday night, were unsurprising, given Trump’s penchant for grievance. But they were nonetheless stunning for the degree to which he refused to view Lewis’s life and legacy in terms beyond how they related to Trump himself.

“I never met John Lewis, actually,” Trump said. “He didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s OK. That’s his right.”

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When asked to reflect on Lewis’z contributions to the civil rights movement, Trump instead talked up his own record.

“Again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have,” he said. “He should have come. I think he made a big mistake.”

Trump declined to say whether he found Lewis’z life story “impressive.” He seemed indifferent to renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., after the congressman. The bridge, named after a former Confederate general, Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, and senator, was the site of a turning point in the civil rights movement that became known as Bloody Sunday.

On that day, March 7, 1965, Lewis suffered a cracked skull during a march across the bridge when a state trooper clubbed him and beat him to the ground. The moment was a defining one in his life and in the civil rights movement. Trump, in the Axios interview, suggested there “were many others also” whose work should be praised.

Trump did not attend the events honoring Lewis at the Capitol last week, although Vice President Mike Pence visited to pay his respects, as did Joe Biden, the former vice president and Trump’s presumptive November opponent.

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The president and the congressman had been at odds since before Trump’s inauguration, when Lewis questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 election and said he would not attend when the president-elect traveled to the Capitol to be sworn in.

“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” Lewis said in a television interview days before Trump took office. “And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t plan to attend the inauguration. It will be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in the Congress. You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right.”

In the wide-ranging interview with Axios, Trump repeatedly insisted he deserved praise for the country’s ability to detect the coronavirus through testing and dismissed criticism that he and his administration should have done more to contain it. Remarking on the more than 150,000 deaths the virus has caused, he said: “It is what it is.”

“They are dying. That’s true,” Trump said in the interview, recorded July 28. “It is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

Trump repeatedly played down the virus throughout the spring and did so again in the interview, insisting that cases are falling in places where they aren’t.

“One person’s too much,” Trump said. “And those people that really understand it, that really understand it, they said it’s an incredible job that we’ve done.”

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Trump was also asked about his recent well-wishes for Ghislaine Maxwell, the former girlfriend of Jeffrey Epstein, who had been charged by federal officials with trafficking underage girls. Trump said he hoped nothing “bad” happened to her in prison.

“Her boyfriend died in jail and people are still trying to figure out how did it happen, was it suicide, was he killed?” Trump said. “I do wish her well. I’m not looking for anything bad for her.”

Attorney General William Barr has said that Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan jail last year. But conspiracy theorists continue to question the death.