Rep. Elijah E. Cummings did not directly address the president’s Twitter tirade against the Democrat’s home city of Baltimore during the half-hour talk he gave Wednesday at the National Press Club. He didn’t have to.
In his first major speech in the nearly two weeks since President Trump called Cummings’s district a “rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live,” the congressman called for an end to “hateful rhetoric” that inspires mass shooters like the man accused of killing 22 people in El Paso.
“Those at the highest levels of government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior,” he said. “As a country, we finally must say that enough is enough. That we are done with the hateful rhetoric. That we are done with the mass shootings. That we are done with the white supremacists, domestic terrorists who are terrorizing our country and fighting against everything America stands for.”
When Democrats took control of the House this year, Cummings rose to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and became a chief antagonist to the president, wielding his power to subpoena Trump administration officials and documents. His remarks Wednesday were scheduled months ago and coincided with Trump’s visits to El Paso and Dayton, where 31 people died in back-to-back shootings over the weekend.
Cummings veered from the political to the personal during his speech. “God has called me to this moment. I did not ask for it,” he said.
He said lawmakers who have gone home for August recess should return to Washington to address gun violence. The House has passed legislation to strengthen background checks. The Senate has not.
Trump has said in recent days that there is “strong appetite” for a bill strengthening background checks. When asked if he believes Trump’s assessment for such a bill, Cummings invoked a theme he would return to often when talking about Washington.
“You really need to be careful when you’re listening to politicians talk about what they’re going to do,” he said to laughter. “You have a lot of talk, but in the end, nothing happens.”
The son of sharecroppers who has lived in what he describes as the “inner inner city” of Baltimore, Cummings repeated his invitation for Trump to visit his district, which includes parts of Baltimore as well as Baltimore and Howard counties, where “the richest of the rich live.”
“When you beat up on people who have had difficulties and challenges in their lives, it doesn’t help them,” he said. “Nobody in this room would do that.”
He also asked the news media to compare his district to the South Carolina congressional district formerly represented by Mick Mulvaney, now director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting White House chief of staff. After Trump’s tweets about Baltimore, several people pointed out that in comparison Mulvaney’s congressional district is in a lower percentile for income and less-educated.
Cummings said the state of the nation, and the treatment of undocumented immigrants apprehended while trying to enter the country illegally, had inspired a conversation with his 10-year-old niece over the weekend.
“ ‘Uncle Elijah, are they going to put us in cages?’ ” he said she asked. “Are they going to put us in cages?” he repeated. “That’s coming from a 10-year-old. We are better than that!”
There are nations where people are afraid of their government, he said, but “we need to switch that around to where the government is afraid of the people.”
Cummings walked the audience through oversight committee investigations he’s leading into the rising costs of prescription drugs, criminal justice, the opioid epidemic and voter suppression.
On her deathbed at age 91, Cummings said, his mother did not say, “Elijah, I love you” or “Elijah, I’m proud of you.” She told him, “Do not let anyone take our votes away.”
He said the administration has repeatedly stymied his committee’s efforts to review documents, including those related to a now-abandoned effort to add a citizenship question to the census. Requests have been met with “a delay and stonewall approach,” he said.
“It’s time for America to wake up and pay close attention to what this administration is trying to do,” he said, urging people to vote.
The crowd of more than 200 stood for Cummings, who has battled health troubles, as he arrived in a wheelchair and transferred to a walker and then a chair before standing to deliver prepared remarks.
His wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who is head of the Maryland Democratic Party, and one of his daughters, Jennifer Cummings, sat on the dais for the speech.
Trump began a days-long Twitter tirade against Cummings and Baltimore on the morning of July 27 by calling his congressional district more dangerous than the U.S.-Mexico border, and the “Worst in the USA.”
Yet Cummings wrapped up on a hopeful note.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to lift up our nation to make it the very, very best it can be,” he said.