WASHINGTON (AP) — A top White House aide on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s disparaging tweets about an influential black Democratic congressman 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, but he said he understood why some people could perceive them that way.
Trump’s repeated weekend attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, marked the latest assault on a prominent lawmaker and the people he represents. Two weeks ago, Trump sparked a nationwide uproar with racist tweets directed at four congresswomen of color as he looks to stoke racial divisions for political gain.
Mulvaney claimed that Trump’s tweets were simply a reaction to what he views 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 a top administration official 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 lashed out in tweets against Cummings, claiming his 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.”
Trump has sought to put racial polarization at the center of his appeal to his base of voters, tapping into anxieties about demographic and cultural changes in the nation on the belief that the polarized country he leads will simply choose sides over issues like race.
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. Cummings is black.
“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.”
Cummings has also drawn the president’s ire for investigations touching on his family members serving in the White House. His committee voted along party lines Thursday to authorize subpoenas for personal emails and texts used for official business by top White House aides, including Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
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.
Cummings’ district also extends into Maryland’s Baltimore and Howard counties.
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