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‘Louder and more hateful’: Big-city leaders say Trump’s attacks on Baltimore are escalation of his strategy to denigrate diverse, liberal areas

Lawmakers on July 28 discussed President Trump's tweets targeting Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and the Baltimore district Trump called "rodent infested." (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump’s denunciations of Baltimore as an uninhabitable city are the latest in a string of disparaging attacks on diverse, liberal enclaves as violent, dirty and outside the mainstream — rhetoric that paints those areas of the country as fundamentally less American than whiter, more conservative strongholds.

Trump denigrated Maryland’s largest city over the weekend as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and blamed it on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is black, and claimed on Sunday that the lawmaker himself is “racist.” Long before, Trump had taken aim at other major cities, some of which are predominantly African American, and their elected leaders.

He called San Francisco streets “disgusting,” labeled Oakland and Ferguson, Mo., among the most dangerous places in the world, and lambasted the “crime spree” and “terrible blight” in Chicago. He also tagged Atlanta as “crime infested” and said the city represented by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was “falling apart.”

Speaking to reporters on July 27, Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young slammed President Trump's tweets about his city and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). (Video: Reuters)

Last month, Trump used an interview with Fox News during a trip to Japan to condemn the “filth” caused by homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, blaming it on their Democratic leaders.

“It’s disgraceful,” Trump said, adding that his administration was looking at steps to “get that whole thing cleaned up.”

To the leaders of those jurisdictions, Trump’s indictment of Baltimore fits a long-standing pattern of a president who accentuates the nation’s divisions along racial, ethnic and geographic lines.

“His spewing of white supremacist rhetoric is unending,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) said in an interview Sunday, adding: “I fear that the rhetoric will only get louder and more hateful the closer we get to the election.”

In 2015, Trump responded to a question from a New York Times reporter about the most dangerous places he has been by criticizing Oakland and Ferguson, the site of protest marches in 2014 over police brutality against African American men, for their crime rates. A PolitiFact assessment found that neither city ranked near the top in per capita murder rates in the United States, much less the world, as he had claimed.

Trump’s willingness to disparage parts of the country comes as he has intensified attacks on Democratic minority lawmakers, including Cummings and four congresswomen who the president suggested two weeks ago should “go back” to foreign countries even though they are Americans.

Trump and his aides sought to frame his criticism of Baltimore as born of genuine concern for the city’s residents, as well as a bid by the president to defend himself against criticism from Cummings over the administration’s immigration policies. Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, is overseeing investigations into the president on ethics issues and potential conflicts of interest with the Trump Organization — which has angered Trump.

The president continued his assault on Cummings on Sunday, tweeting that the Democratic congressman is “racist” and that “his radical ‘oversight’ is a joke!”

In a tweet after returning to the White House from his Virginia golf club late Sunday afternoon, Trump said there was “nothing racist” about “stating plainly what most people already know.”

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on Sunday defended Trump’s attacks on Baltimore and Cummings, saying that some people will be offended by anything the president says.

“Do you understand that that is offensive to the Americans who do live there?” host Margaret Brennan asked on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

“I understand that everything that Donald Trump says is offensive to some people,” Mulvaney replied.

The president’s Baltimore tweetstorm — including retweeting a bigoted far-right British media personality on Sunday — stood in sharp contrast to the way he has spoken about predominantly white areas of the country facing poverty, crime and drug problems.

At a summit on combating opioid abuse in April, Trump praised the efforts of officials in Georgia and Tennessee, which he called a “great state,” and highlighted his administration’s work in New Hampshire, West Virginia, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ohio — all states that he won in 2016.

“We will prevail because of the courage, commitment, and compassion of heroes like all of you in this room today,” Trump said. “You’re incredible people. You are America’s true source of strength.”

Two weeks ago, at a Turning Point USA convention of conservative students, Trump referred to federal subsidies his administration has distributed to farmers harmed by his trade war with China and praised them as “great patriots” who support him.

Trump’s defenders countered that his criticism of Baltimore is supported by the facts. The city, whose previous mayor Catherine E. Pugh resigned in May amid a corruption scandal, had the highest murder rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities last year and ranked second in violent crime, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro called Trump’s Twitter attack “bad for the country,” but he said the specific criticism the president leveled “isn’t racist.”

“It’s evident to anyone with two eyes and a functioning prefrontal cortex,” Shapiro wrote in a tweet to his 2.2 million followers.

But Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) called Trump’s focus on Baltimore a blatant attempt to “galvanize his base.”

Early in Trump’s tenure, the president denounced Chicago, whose then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) was a former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, as “totally out of control.” Trump said he would “send in the feds,” which some city officials interpreted to mean the National Guard. Last August, after a weekend of violence left 12 people dead, Trump called the city’s problems a product of “bad leadership.”

“He knows he’s not getting any significant votes in any urban center in the country, so why not vilify those areas?” said Lightfoot, who took office in May.

An analysis last week from David Wassermann, an editor at the Cook Political Report, suggested that Trump could lose the popular vote by as many as 5 million — nearly twice the number he lost by in 2016 — yet still go on to reelection in the electoral college next year if he is able to drive his supporters to the polls in key swing states.

Amid a firestorm of outrage, Trump’s expanded attacks on Sunday included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a frequent subject of his ire. He called San Francisco, which she represents, “not even recognizable lately.”

Trump also touted the low unemployment rate for African Americans and accused Democrats of playing the “Race Card.”

The Trump administration has sought ways to punish Democratic strongholds represented by his political rivals. Last year, the White House pushed a plan to release undocumented immigrants in federal custody into “sanctuary cities” in liberal areas, including San Francisco, that withhold cooperation with federal enforcement operations. It was ultimately shot down by lawyers in the Department of Homeland Security.

At the Turning Point USA conference, Trump repeated his baseless assertion that large numbers of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election and called results in California, which he lost, “totally rigged.” His own Commission on Voter Fraud disbanded in January 2018 without finding any such evidence.

“Enough is enough — it’s disrespectful,” said Khalilah M. Harris, who was one of 149 African American officials from the Obama administration who signed an opinion piece in The Washington Post on Sunday denouncing Trump’s attacks on minority lawmakers.

Harris, who has lived in Baltimore for 25 years and founded a school there, said the youngest of her three daughters, who is 10, asked why she co-authored the essay. She responded that Trump “does not understand what it means to be a good American, and we need to remind him there are Americans who look like us and fight for this country every day.”

To which, Harris said, her daughter replied: “So he’s doing the same things he always does.”

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.