A public feud between Donald Trump and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) seemed to jettison any lingering hopes that the inauguration would temporarily ease partisanship in Washington and instead threatened to widen the rift between the two parties.
Lewis’s assertion that Trump is not a “legitimate president” and his announcement that he would skip Friday’s inaugural ceremony prompted the president-elect to sharply criticize the civil rights leader Saturday morning.
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” Trump wrote in two tweets. “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
Late Saturday evening, Trump continued to hammer Lewis in a third tweet. “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!” Trump wrote.
The incident has left Democrats and Republicans bracing themselves for yet another showdown between the president and his political opponents — one that threatens to usher in a new era of the kind of crippling hyper-partisanship that often characterized the eight years of the Obama administration.
David Axelrod, former senior strategist and aide to President Obama, called Lewis “as genuine and decent a person as you’ll find,” but he worried that Democrats risk adopting an originally Republican playbook in their dealings with Trump and that it won’t advance the party’s interests.
“The question is how much can a democracy take of cycle after cycle of one side claiming illegitimacy,” Axelrod said. “I as much as anybody else appreciate the anger because I was there when we basically faced a Republican blockade, even on things that Republicans had supported in the past. I saw how destructive that was and how difficult that was.”
“If you care about our democracy, how do you proceed now? Do you pay him back in kind?” Axelrod asked.
Voicing the anger and disappointment of many Democrats in Congress and beyond, Lewis said in an interview with NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that was published Friday that he does not believe Trump is a legitimate president, citing the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in the election to bolster Trump.
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis said.
The comments prompted anger from Republicans — even those who do not support Trump — who said that Democrats are disregarding their own breathless warnings during the campaign about the risks of failing to accept the election results.
“We listened to Democrats for the last two months of the campaign say that any suggestion that the elections weren’t legitimate and the results wouldn’t be accepted is dangerous and unpatriotic,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “Now those same people are trying to delegitimize Trump and say that he shouldn’t be elected president.”
Trump’s comments were all the more charged as they came at the start of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend and were seen as dismissive of Lewis’s work in the civil right movement, a time when he was subjected to arrest and assault. Adding to the racial overtones is the disparagement of Lewis’s district, which is majority black, as “crime infested.”
Interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile called Trump’s comments an “attack on a living legend and a civil rights hero.”
“I say that John Lewis took action. He took action marching from Selma to Montgomery,” she said at a Democratic Party meeting in Phoenix.
At least a dozen Democratic lawmakers have joined Lewis, saying that they plan to skip Trump’s swearing-in. And on Twitter on Saturday, many of them jumped to the congressman’s defense.
Few Republican lawmakers weighed in. Two, Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Rep. Kevin Yoder (Kan.), tweeted support for Lewis even as they urged him to attend the inauguration. One other, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), urged Trump in a pointed tweet to “just stop.”
The Lewis tweets capped a week of Twitter flurries by the president-elect in which he went after what he viewed as insults from various people or entities, including Clinton, CNN, the intelligence community, BuzzFeed News and Meryl Streep.
“His fundamental rule is that if you come after me in any way, I’ll come after you,” Axelrod noted. “He thinks he can bully people into cooperation. My experience has been that can drive people further away and make it harder.
“There are some things that he’s talking about wanting to do that he’s going to need Democratic votes for.”
David Weigel in Phoenix contributed to this report.