House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) has been the target of recent attacks from President Trump. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Several congressional Republicans on Monday disputed President Trump’s assertion that veteran African American Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is a racist, but most avoided directly criticizing the president for his inflammatory comments.

Trump never offered any reason or explanation for why he called Cummings (D-Md.) a racist. The accusation was one of the more striking aspects of his weekend attacks on the lawmaker, in which he also called Cummings’s Baltimore-area district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”

During the course of Trump’s presidency, Republicans have been reluctant to criticize him for his controversial comments on a range of issues, with many claiming not to have seen his tweets.

But in interviews Monday, several — particularly those who have worked with Cummings — expressed discomfort and sometimes outright disagreement with Trump’s charge against the Democratic lawmaker.

The most notable defense of Cummings came from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, yet maintains a friendship with Cummings — who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, of which Meadows is also a member. 

“I am friends with both men, President Trump and Chairman Cummings. I know both men well. Neither man is a racist. Period,” Meadows, who frequently echoes the president’s attacks on perceived opponents, said in a statement. “Both love America. I think if we put aside partisanship with investigations we can find bipartisan solutions that will benefit not only Chairman Cummings’ district but the country as a whole.”

He added, “I’m committed to working to that end with both of them.”

Some of the strongest GOP rejections of Trump’s attack on Cummings came from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.)

“No, I do not — absolutely do not,” Murkowski said when asked if she agreed with Trump that Cummings is a racist. 

“I do not agree that Elijah Cummings is a racist,” Capito said. “I served with him for 14 years, and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Other Republicans who rejected the president’s assertion also sought to defend him against recent criticism that he has made racist comments when attacking minority lawmakers.

“It’s my opinion that neither Chairman Cummings nor President Trump is a racist,” said Rep Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) had a similar response.

“I don’t think either Congressman Cummings or President Trump are racist,” he said. “I think they disagree, but you can disagree with someone’s ideas but not disagree with their color.”

Trump’s criticism of Cummings began over the weekend. It came after the Oversight Committee chairman was critical of Trump’s border officials during a hearing, and after his panel authorized subpoenas for personal emails and texts used for official business by top White House aides, including Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

“If racist Elijah Cummings would focus more of his energy on helping the good people of his district, and Baltimore itself, perhaps progress could be made in fixing the mess that he has helped to create over many years of incompetent leadership,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “His radical ‘oversight’ is a joke!”

Cummings, in a weekend response, noted that he goes home to his district every night and that “each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors.”

“It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch,” Cummings responded. “But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.” 

A litany of Democratic lawmakers and candidates for the party’s presidential nomination have defended Cummings and condemned Trump’s tweets.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in a radio interview Monday that Trump’s comments about Baltimore, the state’s largest city, were “outrageous and inappropriate,” although he stopped short of calling them racist. 

In Congress, the criticism of the president from some GOP lawmakers was more indirect and gentle.

“Most of the president’s tweets are inappropriate. This is one of them, and I’m not going to address every one of them,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told a reporter that he didn’t know the context for Trump calling Cummings a racist, but he stressed that when it came to the residents of Baltimore, “there’s no reason to impugn them or the place they call home.” 

“I grew up in a small place in Missouri, and people make fun of it,” Hawley said. “I just think, you know, there’s no need to attack them. I doubt that’s what the president was trying to do, but I just think you can attack Rep. Cummings and his record and what he’s done, but I think there’s no need to attack the people of Baltimore.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said that he hadn’t heard Trump’s comment and that “I don’t know whether I agree with him or not.” 

Cramer added: “I do find it ironic that liberals, they want to be — they, on the one hand, proclaim that we’re all equal, which our Constitution says and our God says. But then they want to be victims at the same time.” 

Several other Republican officials declined to engage in interviews Monday.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the chamber’s sole African American Republican, said when asked whether he agreed with Trump calling Cummings racist. “I have not responded to that because I don’t know how to respond to it.” 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called it the “latest act of political theater.” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said that he didn’t hear Trump’s comments but that “this focus, this back-and-forth, needs to be on how we lift all Americas out of poverty, including Baltimore.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who’s up for reelection next year, declined to engage on Cummings-related questions and would not answer when asked if he agreed with Trump that the congressman is racist. That prompted Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was standing next to him in a Senate elevator, to turn toward Tillis and say, “Well, I know [Cummings] is not a racist.”

When asked whether he agreed with Trump’s characterization of Cummings, Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), who heads the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee and served in the House between 2011 and 2017, said: “I don’t know Elijah Cummings.”

Hailey Fuchs, Erica Werner, Karoun Demirjian, Robert Costa and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.