Back in February, Representative Elijah Cummings, a black Democrat, stood up for his friend, Representative Mark Meadows, a white Republican.
Members of Congress were fielding the testimony of President Donald Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, when Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, accused Meadows of racism for trotting out a female black Trump appointee as a stage prop during the hearing. “My nieces and nephews are people of color, not many people know that,” Meadows responded, fuming. “It’s racist to suggest that I asked her to come in here for that reason.”
Meadows, who recommended during the 2012 presidential campaign that Barack Obama be sent “back to Kenya,” also reminded the House of what he described as his record of combating racism. He asked Cummings, chair of the committee convening the Cohen hearing, to strike Tlaib’s comments from the record. “Mr. Chairman, you and I have a personal relationship that’s not based on color,” Meadows noted.
“If there’s anyone who’s sensitive with regard to race it’s me, the son of former sharecroppers,” Cummings replied. “You’re one of my best friends, I know that shocks a lot of people. But you are. And I can see and I feel your pain.” Cummings encouraged Tlaib to clarify that she wasn’t calling Meadows a racist personally, calmed down Meadows himself, and then moved the hearing along.
Over this past weekend Trump put Cummings and his Baltimore district in his crosshairs, tweeting at him 17 times in a racially-charged salvo of alternately bigoted, hostile and inaccurate insults that commenced at 7:14 a.m. on Saturday and concluded at 6:49 a.m. on Monday. Baltimore and its neighboring areas, the president allowed, were a “very dangerous & filthy place” and a “rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Cummings was “incompetent” and a “brutal bully” responsible for Baltimore’s problems, a “racist” who “spends all of his time trying to hurt innocent people.” As he has done before, Trump also retweeted the musings of a far-right British pundit who is a self-described racist to make his case against Cummings.
A broad, diverse swath of Baltimore residents and supporters responded to Trump by coming to Cummings’s and their city’s defense, acknowledging that Baltimore had myriad problems, including crime and poverty, but was hardly the noxious monolith the president was slagging. #WeAreBaltimore became a ubiquitous hashtag and a rallying cry on social media. Perhaps the most poignant and powerful voice in all of that was a CNN anchor, Victor Blackwell, who was born in Baltimore and noted during a pointed, emotional broadcast on Saturday that Trump frequently uses the words “infested” and “infestation” when describing the homes or countries of people of color.
”Donald Trump has tweeted more than 43,000 times. He’s insulted thousands of people, many different types of people. But when he tweets about infestation, it’s about black and brown people,” Blackwell said. “There are challenges, no doubt. But people are proud of their community. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but people get up and go to work there. They care for their families there. They love their children, who pledge allegiance to the flag just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans, too.”
One person who has yet to speak out on Cummings’s behalf is his good friend, Meadows. The congressman from North Carolina, like his entire political party, has remained silent while Trump — an inveterate racist— has spent yet another weekend targeting a high-profile Democrat of color in heinous, prejudiced ways. In that context, Meadows is a proxy for the lack of political courage and moral clarity in Trump’s Republican Party.
While the president was comfortable attacking a politician for Baltimore’s woes, he couldn’t find it in himself to hold the city’s business community equally responsible. If he had, of course, that would have brought his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family into the line of fire. The Kushners own and operate low-income housing developments in the Baltimore area that have been plagued with allegations of legal abuses and have been fined by local authorities for more than 170 building code violations.
Trump’s distaste for cities like Baltimore isn’t new. During the 2016 presidential campaign he referred to inner cities as “ghettos” that were “more dangerous than some of the war zones.” He also painted this portrait and made a promise: “The violence. The death. The lack of education. No jobs. We’re going to work with the African-American community and we’re going to solve the problem of the inner city.”
But the president has done little for troubled urban areas other than to use them as political punching bags from time to time. So what compelled him to lash out against Cummings and Baltimore this time?
Some of Trump’s language and bile was clearly inspired by and directly lifted from a “Fox & Friends” segment that aired Saturday morning about an hour before he first tweeted at Cummings. The congressman has been an aggressive critic of the humanitarian crisis along the U.S.’s southern border that was sparked by the president’s immigration policies, and it was the Fox piece that first tried to argue that conditions on the border were better than in parts of Baltimore.
The House Oversight Committee, which Cummings oversees, also voted recently to subpoena personal email and texts used by top White House aides, including Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump — which undoubtedly bothers the president.
Finally, and most troubling of all, the White House has concluded that Trump’s racist tweets and attacks on politicians of color may be an asset in the 2020 presidential campaign because it will resonate strongly “among his political base,” according to the Washington Post.
All of this explains why Trump sprang into action over the weekend. But it’s worth recognizing too just how comfortable the president has become with random bigotry, and with openly deploying a racism that has come naturally to him for quite some time. He might have checked himself if his party was more resolute, but he clearly understands that Meadows and the rest are there to empower him.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”