House Democrats up in arms over President Trump’s attacks on minority lawmakers are sounding a warning to their own party heading into the 2020 elections: Don’t take the bait.
While Democrats have rushed to the defense of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the prominent Congressional Black Caucus member Trump has attacked this week, they also sense the president is setting a political trap.
Democrats won the House in 2018 campaigning on health care, income inequality and other legislative priorities, and there is concern that Trump’s rhetoric is designed simply to distract voters from those policy debates.
“I hope we don’t take the bait,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the former head of the Black Caucus. “The president always plays the race card when he’s having a bad news cycle. It’s easier to call people names when you don’t have anything else to point to.”
Trump himself on Tuesday said there is no strategy to his attacks on Cummings.
“There’s no strategy. I have no strategy. There’s zero strategy,” Trump said as he returned to the White House after delivering a speech in Jamestown, Va., which was boycotted by most of Virginia’s black lawmakers. “All it is is I’m pointing out facts. The most unsafe city in our country is Baltimore.”
In his recent attack on Cummings, Trump suggested the Maryland Democrat has done nothing to help his Baltimore-area district, which the president vilified as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
“No human being would want to live there,” Trump tweeted over the weekend.
The district, composed of about half of Baltimore and areas to the north and west, is home to almost 720,000 people, according to the Census Bureau, more than half of whom are African American.
Trump has since doubled down, suggesting without evidence that there’s widespread financial corruption in the district and imploring Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, to “investigate himself.”
The tweets, which came just days after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress on Trump’s role in Russia’s election interference, have dominated the news cycle in recent days, while leading Democrats to launch new charges of racism against the president.
Yet even Cummings’s staunchest defenders are suggesting they want to turn the page, concerned that focusing too intently on Trump’s rhetoric will undermine the Democrats’ policy agenda — and play right into the president’s hand.
“We’ve got so much work to do in Congress. … If we get sucked into this rabbit hole, spending our time reacting to every racist comment, every racist deed that this president has done,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), trailing off in exasperation.
“I really want us to stay focused. 2020 is coming.”
For Trump, the recent line of attacks is hardly a new strategy.
The president launched his 2016 campaign by denouncing Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.” In 2017, he responded to a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., by blaming “many sides” for the violence. He’s disparaged Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as shitholes.
At the same time, the Trump attacks on Cummings have raised eyebrows anew given their focus on a prominent black lawmaker.
Earlier this month, the president urged four freshman Democratic congresswomen of color — Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar(Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) — to “go back” where they came from.
All four are U.S. citizens, and only Omar was born abroad.