President Donald Trump continued his Twitter barrage Sunday against U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and his Baltimore district, calling the Democrat “racist” and declaring that Cummings and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should say “thank you, Mr. President” for reducing black unemployment and directing more federal resources to struggling neighborhoods.
As the Republican president accused Cummings of failing to fix “the mess that he has created over many years of incompetent leadership,” Cummings appeared at the early morning services he habitually attends at New Psalmist Baptist Church on the edge of Northwest Baltimore.
The veteran congressman — a chief inquisitor of Trump as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — listened to a sermon about the disciple Paul answering a call from God to help the people of Macedonia.
“When the holy spirit lives in you, you see need. You don’t tweet it,” Bishop Walter S. Thomas Sr. told the congregation.
The sermon wasn’t about what transpired with Trump and Cummings this weekend, church spokeswoman Joi Thomas said afterward, but “the mark of a good sermon is that it’s relevant to a situation, even if it’s not about that situation."
Cummings declined through a church representative to comment and could not be reached later.
After the service, some congregants defended Cummings and said they felt exasperated with Trump’s statement. One of them, James Sutton, said he felt Trump was speaking ill of Baltimore residents in the tweets.
“If [the president] sees a need for change, he’s supposed to implement change also,” Sutton said. “I think Baltimore is a great place to live. Everywhere’s got their problems.”
His fellow churchgoers were among many who leaped to the defense of Cummings and Baltimore as Trump continued to harangue the congressman and defend himself from accusations of playing the race card in an effort to rally his supporters ahead of his run for reelection in 2020.
“There is nothing racist in stating plainly what most people already know, that Elijah Cummings has done a terrible job for the people of his district, and of Baltimore itself. Dems always play the race card when they are unable to win with facts. Shame!” Trump tweeted.
Like other Democratic leaders, Cummings has said he is often torn between wanting to respond to Trump’s tweets and not allowing the president to distract from the agenda of the Democratic-controlled House.
“It’s almost like taking the oxygen out of the room,” said Republican political scientist Tony Campbell, who ran unsuccessfully for Cummings’ congressional district in 1998 and was the Republican nominee for Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin’s seat last year.
Democrats “are always kind of responding to him instead of setting the narrative,” Campbell said.
But others — from Pelosi and other local, state and national Democratic leaders to civic boosters and the congregants at Cummings’ church — sought to create a united front defending him and Baltimore.
Baltimore boosters launched a website called “We Are Baltimore” that they say will emphasize positive news about the city after Trump’s Saturday tweet derided the congressman’s district as a “rat and rodent infested mess.”
The site ― wearebaltimore.com ― was in the works for a post-Labor Day launch before the Republican president took to Twitter to insult Cummings and his district. But when the hashtag #wearebaltimore started to trend on Twitter in response to Trump’s attacks, the site’s founders decided to make it live early.
“The public is desperate for something like this,” said co-founder Michael Cryor, who helped lead former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s “Believe” campaign. “They can look forward to a site that provides an alternative to the negative perception of Baltimore.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan plans to address the tweet storm and its fallout Monday, his spokesman, Michael Ricci, said. Ricci said Hogan is disappointed elected officials have been resorting to attacks rather than seeking common ground.
Among those with Baltimore ties joining the chorus rebuking Trump’s comments were Wes Moore, a bestselling author and entrepreneur; filmmaker John Waters; “The Wire” creator David Simon and actor Wendell Pierce.
“Best years in my life were in Baltimore because of the people, the spirit of self determination, perseverance, and the AMERICAN aesthetic of willful optimism in the face of adversity. A city of great character. Character you know nothing about, Trump,” Pierce tweeted.
Trump’s Twitter barrage appeared to be precipitated by a Saturday “Fox & Friends” segment in which a Republican strategist called Cummings’ district the “most dangerous” in America and showed video of boarded-up rowhouses and trash-strewn alleys in West Baltimore.
But it also started just two days after Cummings’ committee voted to subpoena senior White House officials, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, for their communications via private email accounts and messaging apps. The committee’s Democrats say the communications might violate the Presidential Records Act.
Trump’s tweets also came nine days after Cummings lashed out during a hearing at the head of the Department of Homeland Security for the miserable and unsanitary conditions in which children suspected of crossing the border illegally are held.
Cummings told The Baltimore Sun earlier this month that he was deeply offended by a Trump tweet that four Democratic congresswomen of color should "go back” to other countries. Cummings said the tweet recalled painful memories of 1962, when white mobs taunted and threw rocks and bottles at Cummings and other African American kids seeking to integrate the Riverside Park pool in South Baltimore.
A week ago, Cummings responded, “Yes, no doubt about it,” when asked during “This Week with George Stephanopoulos" whether Trump was a racist.
Trump’s tweet Sunday referred to “racist Elijah Cummings” without explanation.
Political scientist Todd Eberly of St. Mary’s College said such counterattacks are part of the president’s playbook.
“I think he knows many of the people who will vote for him are incredibly uncomfortable with what he says,” Eberly said.
Eberly said Trump’s strategy is “to make people believe the other people are just as bad. He does act out of anger but he’s not stupid. He wants to win a contest where both people are unpopular.”
Trump has little to lose in deep-blue Maryland, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
“In Maryland, his numbers have nowhere to go. He has essentially been in the upper 20s since he took office,” Kromer said.
But “if you look at his public approval ratings among Republicans, they have been stable and they have been strong,” she said.
Trump had been scheduled to visit Baltimore late last year but canceled because of what the White House said were scheduling difficulties.
He held an event about urban revitalization at the White House instead. Then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, Hogan and Cummings declined invitations to attend.
At the event, he signed an order to help federal agencies aid the “opportunity zones” program, which is designed to attract billions of dollars of private investment and government resources to distressed communities. The program, part of a 2017 tax reform law, offers capital gains tax relief to investors for new investment in nearly 9,000 designated areas — including some in Baltimore.
The opportunity zone concept has bipartisan support and has been highlighted in Baltimore as an important tool for helping revitalize the city. It allows investors to cut their capital gains tax bills if they put money into special funds that back projects in the zones. Critics, however, worry it’s a massive tax giveaway benefiting real estate developers who will bypass many poor areas and focus instead on existing projects in opportunity zones nearby.
Trump tweeted Sunday that “African American unemployment is the lowest (best) in the history of the United States. No President has come close to doing this before! I also created successful Opportunity Zones.”
Trump said he was waiting for Pelosi and Cummings to say, “Thank you, Mr. President!”
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.