Donald Trump steps up attack on black lawmaker, calls him 'racist'

WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing growing accusations of racism for his incendiary tweets, President Donald Trump is seeking to deflect the criticism by labeling a leading black congressman as himself racist.

In the latest rhetorical shot at non-white lawmakers, Trump said his weekend comments referring to Rep. Elijah Cummings' majority-black Baltimore district as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" where "no human being would want to live" were not racist. Instead, Trump argued, "if racist Elijah Cummings would focus more of his energy on helping the good people of his district, and Baltimore itself, perhaps progress could be made in fixing the mess."

"His radical 'oversight' is a joke!" Trump tweeted Sunday.

His comments capped a weekend of attacks on Cummings, the son of former sharecroppers who rose to become the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, even as a top White House aide sought to dismiss the controversy by describing Trump's comments as hyperbole. Two weeks ago, Trump caused a nationwide uproar with racist tweets directed at four Democratic congresswomen of color as he looked to stoke racial divisions for political gain heading into the 2020 election.

Speaking in television interviews, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Trump was reacting in frustration to the Democrats' unrelenting investigations and talk of impeachment. He said Trump swung hard at Cummings and his Baltimore district because he believes such Capitol Hill critics are neglecting serious problems back home in their zeal to unfairly undermine his presidency.

"I understand that everything that Donald Trump says is offensive to some people," Mulvaney said. But he added: "The president is pushing back against what he sees as wrong. It's how he's done it in the past, and he'll continue to do it in the future."

Mulvaney, a former congressman himself, said he understood why some people could perceive Trump's words as racist.

Mulvaney said Trump's words were exaggerated for effect — "Does the president speak hyperbolically? Absolutely" — and meant to draw attention to Democratic-backed investigations of the Republican president and his team in Washington.

"Instead of helping people back home, they're focusing on scandal in Washington D.C., which is the exact opposite of what they said they would do when they ran for election in 2018," Mulvaney said, pointing at Democrats who now control the House.

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Rep. Elijah Cummings
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Rep. Elijah Cummings
US Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, March 8, 2017, after a meeting with US President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Congressman Elijah Cummings (R), D-Maryland, and US Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vermont, speak at the White House in Washington, DC, March 8, 2017, after a meeting with US President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09: (L-R) Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) hold a news conference to call for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election at the U.S. Capitol January 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. Accusations of Russian computer hacks of Democratic National Committee servers and emails have lead to calls for an investigation. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (L) visits with Rev. Jesse Jackson during a reception in honor of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture at the White House September 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will be among the guests to help open the museum to the public Saturday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday, July 25, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) hold a news conference to discuss ?legislation to lower drug prices and increase access to medications" on Capitol Hill in Washington September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Ranking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (L) and chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) chat during a hearing at the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on "Examining Obama Transparency Failures" in Washington December 9, 2014. Obamacare consultant Jonathan Gruber apologized on Tuesday for his recent remarks about "the stupidity of the American voter," telling the congressional committee he did not think President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law was passed in a deceptive manner. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH)
Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) speaks during a news conference about his former staff, who lost six children of her children in an overnight fire in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaks as U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) looks on during a news conference on the demonstrations for Freddie Gray, who died following an arrest by the Baltimore police department, in Baltimore, Maryland April 26, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) asks questions during "The Security Failures of Benghazi" hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. October 10, 2012. Diplomatic security in Libya was drawn down ahead of last month's fatal attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and U.S. officials did not have enough protection, the former head of a U.S. security team in Libya told lawmakers on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 14: Congressman Elijah Cummings and his wife, Maya Rockeymoore, on the red carpet at the Congressional Black Caucus 20th Annual Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts at Sidney Harman Hall at the Shakespeare Theatre on September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shannon Finney/WireImage)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 25: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) gestures while delivering a speech on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07: Committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) (R) talks to ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (L) prior to a hearing before House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 7, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing 'Oversight of the State Department,' focusing on the FBI's recommendation not to prosecute Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for maintaining a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves after receiving the endorsement of Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) during a grassroots event in Baltimore, Maryland on April 10, 2016. / AFP / YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
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He asserted that Trump's barbs were a reaction to what the president considered 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 said.

Trump's tweets Saturday also charged that Cummings' district, which includes Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Social Security Administration and the national headquarters of the NAACP, is "considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States."

Condemnation followed 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.

The president has tried 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 in the belief that the divided country he leads will simply choose sides over issues such as race.

Mulvaney argued that Trump would criticize any lawmaker, no matter the person's race, in a similar way if Trump felt that individual spoke unfairly about the president's policies. He volunteered that if Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who leads the House Intelligence Committee, had made the same remarks as Cummings, Trump would have pushed back.

"It has zero to do with the fact that Adam is Jewish and everything to do with Adam would just be wrong if he were saying that," Mulvaney said. "This is what the president does. He fights and he's not wrong to do so."

To Mulvaney, Trump was "right to raise" the challenges faced in Cummings' district at the same time that Cummings and other Democrats are "chasing down" the Russia investigation undertaken by Robert Mueller and pursuing "this bizarre impeachment crusade."

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Donald Trump kicks off his 2020 re-election campaign in Florida
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Donald Trump kicks off his 2020 re-election campaign in Florida
President Donald Trump reacts to the crowd after speaking during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump, smiles as press secretary Sarah Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally where Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Vice President Mike Pence speaks to supporters at a rally where President Donald Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Vice President Mike Pence, left, and wife Karen Pence greet supporters at a rally where President Donald Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet supporters after formally announcing his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump greets supporters after his speech where he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump, center, speaks to supporters where he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump supporters shake their fists at the media as Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
From left, Tiffany Trump, Lara Trump and Eric Trump, senior adviser Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle and Donald Trump Jr., watch as President Donald Trump speaks at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump arrives to speak at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senior adviser Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle, watch as President Donald Trump speaks at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as he arrives to speak at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with supporters after arriving at Miami International Airport in Miami, following his re-election kickoff rally in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
First lady Melania Trump and President Donald Trump greet supporters at a rally to formally announce his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Cummings is leading multiple investigations of the president's governmental dealings. In his direct response to Trump on Twitter, Cummings said: "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.

Earlier this month, Trump drew bipartisan condemnation following his call for Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to get out of the U.S. "right now." He said that if the lawmakers "hate our country," they can go back to their "broken and crime-infested" countries.

All four lawmakers of color are American citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S. The House later voted largely along party lines to condemn his "racist comments."

Mulvaney was interviewed on "Fox News Sunday" and CBS' "Face the Nation," where Castro also appeared.

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