Donald Trump, Baltimore spar over Elijah Cummings and racial politics
BALTIMORE – Thomas Williams wasn’t shocked when President Donald Trump lit into his hometown over the weekend, describing the city he has called home for nearly seven decades as a “rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” wants to live.
But Williams said he does have a question for a president who promised to improve conditions in struggling cities like Baltimore and who called for an end to “American carnage” in his 2017 inaugural address: Where is the federal government?
“He’s critical, but he’s not helping,” said Williams, a 67-year-old security guard who was eating shaved ice inside one of the city’s beloved public markets Monday. “He’s in a position to.”
Trump attacked Baltimore – a majority-black city – as part of a series of tweets in which he blasted Rep. Elijah Cummings, an African American lawmaker and prominent House Democrat who represents the city and parts of its surrounding suburbs.
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Baltimore has a shrinking population and a stubborn homicide rate. In 2015, riots broke out there following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died from injuries sustained in policy custody. And a series of scandals have rocked City Hall, forcing two mayors to resign in less than a decade.
But as city officials and longtime residents largely dismissed the president’s tweets as another effort to divide Americans along racial lines heading into the 2020 election, they also questioned the Trump administration’s commitment to heavily Democratic cities such as Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago that he frequently held up during his 2016 campaign as places that would benefit from a “law and order” presidency.
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If Trump holds such strong feelings about Baltimore three years into his presidency, Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young wondered, why isn’t he doing more to help?
“If he really wants to help cities like Baltimore, he has to direct federal resources here to help us with infrastructure, instead of just bashing the City of Baltimore,” Young told USA TODAY in an interview.
Trump and White House officials have pointed to a booming national economy, including low unemployment among African Americans. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has pushed back on any suggestion of a racial element to the president’s tweets, telling Fox News Sunday over the weekend that he is simply “fighting back” against critics.
‘Put the tweet down, brother’
But many Marylanders – both Republican and Democrat – said they saw it differently.
“Put the tweet down, brother, and just show up,” Michael Steele, a former Republican Maryland lieutenant governor said during an event in Baltimore that also featured the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Let’s walk in this community.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, the first Republican governor elected to a second term in Maryland in more than half a century, called the president’s tweets “outrageous and inappropriate” during an interview with WBAL-FM.
“Enough is enough,” said Hogan, elected as the chairman of the National Governors Association days before the president’s tweets. “People are just completely fed up with this kind of nonsense.”
Trump’s bashing of Cummings, an outspoken critic and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, was the latest case of the president putting race front and center in the 2020 election. It came two weeks after he ignited another controversy by telling four Democratic congresswomen of color that they should should “go back” where they came from, even though they are U.S. citizens.
“It’s racist,” Robert Ruhue, a 61-year-old Baltimore man, said of Trump’s tweets focused on Baltimore.
Trump, Ruhue added, has “got to come here and see the city for himself.”
Nathaniel Lewis noted that the nation’s capital has its own problems with drugs and crime, not far from the White House.
“The city does need help,” acknowledged Lewis, 50. “But I think he’s wrong for what he said. He could have come at it in a better way.”
Trump playbook is ‘clear’
Cummings’ district, which is 53 percent black, includes a wide swath of urban and suburban territory in and around the city, including predominately white neighborhoods and residential areas that are African American and middle class. His district is home to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the headquarters of the Social Security Administration.
An attorney and former state lawmaker, Cummings also represents some of the most troubled sections of Baltimore, where a pervasive drug trade has tipped the city over 300 homicides in each of the past four years. The 2015 unrest following Freddie Gray’s death took place in Cummings’ district.
Baltimore officials and residents lamented that Trump focused on the troubled parts of the city without mentioning other neighborhoods. Some speculated Trump was using the city to gin up support with white, suburban voters. Politically, Trump has little to lose in a place like Baltimore, where he received less than 11 percent of the vote in 2016.
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“It’s the card of choice that he plays,” said City Councilman Leon F. Pinkett, III, who represents West Baltimore. “The Trump playbook is clear.”
“He could be the one investing in affordable housing,” Pinkett said. “He could be the one investing in public infrastructure. He could be the one investing in public education.”
On Monday, a group of African American pastors and civil rights leaders emerged from a meeting at the White House on Monday and spoke with reporters to defend the president’s record.
Alveda King, longtime Trump supporter and niece of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., said the group talked about all the challenges facing African Americans.
“We have a president who is listening,” she said.
Pastor Bill Owens said he finds it hard to believe Trump is a racist. The 80-year-old said he has encountered racism his entire life, “so I know it when I see it.”
Trump often raised Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago and other American cities during his 2016 campaign. Accepting his party’s nomination, Trump pointed to a spike in homicides taking place in Baltimore and said they were the result of his predecessor’s policies. In his inauguration speech, he vowed to stop what he described as “American carnage.”
There were 318 homicides in Baltimore in 2016, 342 during Trump’s first year in office and 309 in 2018, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Maryland officials said federal agencies under the Trump administration, including the Justice Department, have continued to work with the city. But Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., noted that the administration has for years sought to impose deep cuts on housing, environmental and redevelopment programs that he said would benefit Baltimore.
“It’s not effective to try to reach out to the president himself,” Cardin said. “We know that his policy priorities are very detrimental to cities like Baltimore.”
Trump visited Baltimore a month after his election to attend the Army-Navy football game that took there. Mayor Catherine Pugh approached him at the event with a letter suggesting the administration could make a major difference in cities like Baltimore by pursuing bipartisan infrastructure spending. Pugh, a Democrat, resigned in May following a scandal involving contracts for children’s books she authored.
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Trump’s infrastructure plans have stalled.
Trump making disparaging comments about the city is nothing new, said Kim Holmes, a lifelong Baltimore resident. But Holmes stressed that the “issue isn’t Baltimore” and that challenges with cleanliness and crime have persisted in other cities as well.
She said she wished Trump would focus on them.
“This was his best shot?” asked Holmes, 58. “If you’re going to tweet about something, talk about the bigger issue.”
Contributing: David Jackson