House Democrats opened their annual issues retreat in Baltimore on Wednesday by vowing to aggressively fight President Donald Trump, slamming his first weeks in the White House and suggesting there would be little room for compromise.
In a barrage of criticism, Democratic leaders meeting at an Inner Harbor hotel used "illusionist" and "authoritarian regime" to describe Trump. Based on his actions so far, they said, they did not envision many areas of agreement.
The strong rhetoric from Democrats — who have little real power in the House — appeared to reflect a leftward lunge by the party following Trump's temporary travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries. The lawmakers are under increased pressure from the party's liberal base to push back.
"We're not irrelevant at all. We represent the views of the majority of citizens," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of the Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. "We don't have to have our head bowed. We don't have to retreat in any way."
The gathering of House members at the Hyatt Regency is the first of two Democratic meetings in Baltimore this week as the party searches for a strategy to deal with the new president. On Saturday, candidates running to chair the Democratic National Committee will appear at a forum at the Baltimore Convention Center to discuss their vision for the party's future.
Trump defended the temporary travel ban, now pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, as important for national security. He told a group of police chiefs — including Baltimore Police Chief Kevin Davis — that his immigration order was "done for the security of our nation."
He said it was written "beautifully" and was within his executive authority.
"A bad high school student would understand this," he said.
Despite the Democrats' tough talk Wednesday, the party remains divided over whether to orchestrate a unified opposition to Trump — the approach the tea party-driven Republican Party took against President Barack Obama — or look for some areas of common ground.
Some Democrats are concerned a more strident approach would further distance the party from the blue-collar swing voters who helped clear Trump's path to victory and allowed Republicans to keep their majorities in the House and Senate.
That concern is acute as Democrats look ahead to the 2018 midterm election, when 10 seats now held by Democrats are up in states Trump won.
House Democrats have frequently held their annual retreat in Baltimore, a heavily Democratic city in a state that gave Hillary Clinton one of her largest margins in the country. In addition to discussions about policy and strategy, lawmakers will hear from NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and comedian Chelsea Handler.
Outside the increased security around the Hyatt Regency, there was little indication Wednesday of the lawmakers' presence. The caucus meetings are closed to the public.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native, offered particularly sharp criticism of Trump during the retreat's opening press conference. The California lawmaker reiterated her call for the FBI to investigate any connections between Trump and Russia.
"As long as the president continues down this path, there is nothing Democrats can work with him on," Pelosi said.
Later this week, Sen. Ben Cardin and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh are among a list of Democrats who will speak at the forum Saturday to help party insiders choose their next party chair. The race includes former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez of Maryland, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and several others.
Hoyer said Wednesday that he will support Perez, of Takoma Park, for the job.
"The most important role of our next chair will be to rebuild our state and local parties so Democrats can compete up and down the ballot," Hoyer said. "I believe Tom is best equipped to deliver on that challenge."
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who appointed Perez to his administration in 2007, endorsed 35-year-old South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the job on Wednesday.
"The Democratic Party of the past became very good at telling millennials to wait their turn. But the future cannot wait," O'Malley wrote in a social media posting.