In its response to Donald Trump’s racist attack on congressman Elijah Cummings, the editorial board of the Baltimore Sun said it “would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner”.
But it did enumerate some of the president’s failings in office and liken him to a creature he said “infested” Cummings’ congressional district: a rat.
“We,” the board wrote, “would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity.
“Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.”
The editorial was one of a number of powerful and widely shared responses to Trump’s attack on Cummings, including an emotional address to camera by Victor Blackwell, a weekend CNN anchor.
Trump attacked the House oversight chairman, a powerful political foe, early on Saturday morning. Without offering evidence he accused him of neglecting his district, Maryland’s seventh, and of unspecified corruption which the president said should be investigated.
He returned to the theme on Sunday, broadening the attack to House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Maryland native, and retweeting the far-right British commentator Katie Hopkins.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney took the fight to the talk shows, echoing Trump when he told Fox News Sunday the president’s comments were not racist. They were merely responses, he said, to Cummings’ criticism of conditions, widely reported and condemned, at migrant detention centres at the southern border.
“When the president hears lies like that, he’s going to fight back,” Mulvaney told Fox News Sunday. “It has absolutely zero to do with race. This is what the president does. He fights, and he’s not wrong to do so.”
Mulvaney also told CBS’s Face the Nation the tweets were answers to Cummings’ statements about impeachment.
However, Trump’s attack on the African American congressman struck a familiar note two weeks after the president told four non-white Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to the countries they came from, regardless of the fact three were born in the US and all are American citizens.
Debate triggered by that attack has raged on, particularly over how Democrats and the media should respond to tactics meant to incite Trump’s white working class base and perhaps force opponents to rally round progressives with policy priorities he thinks will not be popular at the polls.
On Saturday, again, Republicans largely remained silent, seemingly loath to anger their master.
Will Hurd of Texas, the only Republican of colour in the House, was a rare voice who condemned the attacks on the four congresswomen. On Sunday, he refused to go so far again.
“Of course he shouldn’t [have attacked Cummings],” he told ABC’s This Week, adding only: “I don’t think they’re going to invite him to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game any time soon.”
Among Democrats, ahead of the second presidential debate on Wednesday in Detroit, a more practiced response emerged. From Pelosi to 2020 candidates such as California senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, senior politicians defended Cummings and denounced Trump as racist.
House judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler told ABC Trump was “disgusting and racist” and said a House resolution condemning Trump, like that passed after his attack on the congresswomen, “wouldn’t be a bad idea”.
In the media, forceful condemnation accompanied straight news coverage. Like other outlets, the Sun pointed out that Trump’s vision of Cummings’ district as some sort of urban hell showed an ignorance of its true boundaries, which extend into suburbs and rural areas outside the city of Baltimore. In fact Trump’s own housing secretary, Ben Carson, has a house in the district.
The paper also said that as oversight chair, with impeachment in the air, Cummings is by definition a “a thorn in this president’s side”.
“Mr Trump,” the editorial said, “sees attacking African American members of Congress as good politics, as it both warms the cockles of the white supremacists who love him and causes so many of the thoughtful people who don’t to scream.”
It also enumerated Baltimore’s many strengths and rubbished Trump’s attempt to compare conditions in the city to those at the southern border.
In familiar fashion, Trump tweeted immediately after a segment on the Fox & Friends TV show made the same points. That prompted the Sun to compare Trump to a dog.
“Slamming Baltimore must have been irresistible in a Pavlovian way,” the paper wrote. “Fox News rang the bell, the president salivated and his thumbs moved across his cellphone into action.”
Released on Saturday evening, the editorial rippled across social media. So did something else, released earlier in the day.
In a near-three minute segment straight to camera, CNN host Blackwell, who is African American, detailed previous instances of Trump using the word “infested” in attacks on non-white targets, including those on the Squad.
Then, growing emotional, he revealed his own connection to the story.
“The president says about congressman Cummings’ district that no human would want to live there,” he said. “You know who did, Mr President? I did. From the day I was brought home from the hospital to the day I left for college. And a lot of people I care about still do.
“There are challenges no doubt. But people are proud of their community. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but people get up and go to work there, they care for their families there, they love their children who pledge allegiance to the flag just like children do in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans too.