A blighted home in West Baltimore, where the homicide rate has made it the nation’s third most dangerous city. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
BALTIMORE — Maryland’s political leaders and residents reacted with outrage — and sometimes resignation — to President Trump’s tweetstorm Saturday attacking Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) and his Baltimore district as a “rodent infested mess” where “no human” would want to live.
Some said Trump’s language describing a majority black city represented by an African American lawmaker demonstrated his predilection for degrading political opponents.
“This is an example of the racist bully we have as a president, lashing out at Elijah Cummings for speaking the truth and for standing up to the president and his policies,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview. “And the president just can’t take that and lashed out in a way that clearly had racial overtones.”
Others said that even if the president were half right about Baltimore’s woes, he has a duty to do more than use them as a political weapon.
“Rats? Come on, everyone has rats. New York has rats,” said Malique Abdulla, 26, just before heading into the GruB Factory, a vegan cafe on North Charles Street in Cummings’s district.
A street in West Baltimore. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Abdulla, a curator at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, said the president’s tweets — and the intense focus on them — take energy away from fixing the city’s enduring problems, such as systemic racism in the police force, corruption in local government and troubled public schools.
And yet, Abdulla said, that’s also why he made Baltimore his home a few months ago, despite its reputation. “This city needs people like me,” he said.
Trump’s tweets came days after Cummings, who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, presided over a hearing investigating the Trump administration’s handling of migrants and detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Rep. Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous,” Trump tweeted. His tweets quickly followed a segment on Fox & Friends called “How do living conditions in Rep. Cummings’ Baltimore district compare to those at the border?”
Cummings, in a tweet, said he fights for his constituents every day.
“Mr. President, I go home to my district daily,” he said. “It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”
An editorial posted online Saturday evening by the Baltimore Sun newspaper carried this headline: “Better to have a few rats than be one.”
It said “It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. The congressman has been a thorn in this president’s side, and Mr. Trump sees attacking African American members of Congress as good politics,”
It criticized several of the president’s actions and assertions, cited some of the city’s strongpoints, and said “If there are problems here, rodents included, they are as much his responsibility as anyone’s, perhaps more because he holds the most powerful office in the land.”
Earlier, other reactions spilled in almost as quickly as people could type a tweet.
David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who documented life on the city’s streets for the television series “The Wire,” returned fire at the president, calling him simplistic. He said Baltimore’s troubles resulted from a complex stew of urban policy, the war on drugs, white flight and deindustrialization.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who positioned her campaign headquarters in Cummings’s district, joined the pushback. “Baltimore has become home to my team and it’s disgraceful the president has chosen to start his morning disparaging this great American city,” she tweeted.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young defended the city and Cummings, saying in a written statement that Trump’s attacks were “hurtful” and “dangerous.” He also called Trump a “disappointment to the people of Baltimore, our country, and to the world.”
Some Trump supporters went on Twitter to defend the president, citing Baltimore’s crime statistics to argue that his criticism of Cummings was fair.
But Van Hollen said the president is aiming to divide people and inflame racial tensions.
“It’s the really sickening Trump playbook,” he said. “First of all, what Trump is trying to do is compare parts of Baltimore with people being caged along the border. There’s no comparison. Second, Elijah Cummings’s district is very diverse. It has lower-income neighborhoods that need a lot of help. And it has very wealthy areas.”
The 7th Congressional District in Maryland, which Cummings has represented since 1996, includes a portion of Baltimore City but also ranges farther west and north into Baltimore and Howard counties. Median household income is around $61,000, and the district has a higher percentage of college graduates than the country as a whole. It is nearly 53 percent black.
Trump’s tweets focused particular attention on Baltimore City, which has been struggling with political scandal and social unrest. Young has been mayor since May, when City Hall’s previous occupant, Catherine E. Pugh, resigned amid a scandal involving the sale of her children’s book to state institutions. Pugh was the second Baltimore mayor in the past decade to leave office while facing corruption allegations.
Baltimore ranks as the third most dangerous city in the country behind Detroit and St. Louis, according to the FBI’s 2017 crime report. In a city of more than 600,000 people, police have recorded more than 300 homicides a year for four years in a row.
Two years ago, the city’s police department was placed under federal supervision following a Justice Department report that found discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott said the city is more than its problems, something Trump seems unable to grasp.
“Yes, East and West Baltimore have significant challenges and problems,” Scott said in an interview. “But those challenges and problems are not specific to Baltimore. They can be found in American cities across the country.”
Rowhouses line this West Baltimore street. President Trump called the city a “rodent infested mess” on Saturday. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
“What the president is really missing is that he — as president of the United States — as opposed to tweeting out how bad things are and beating down an American city should realize that he is in the greatest position of all to help Baltimore address some of the issues he’s speaking about,” Scott said.
Some residents interviewed Saturday acknowledged the ills to which Trump alluded. Liwood Smith, 56, an unemployed landscaper who has lived in Baltimore for more than a decade, said the president wasn’t far off in saying the city had hordes of rats, though there are perhaps not as many as there used to be.
There is also a lot of violence, he said. While Smith was getting coffee on Saturday at the Dunkin’ on West Biddle Street, he said a distressed young woman ran inside to call police, saying she had been “attacked.” At night, the city’s streets seem to be ruled by gangs, Smith said.
“They got young people out here robbing people,” Smith said, adding that he’s grown used to hearing about violent, sometimes deadly crimes and would move to North Carolina if he could.
“Stop some of this killing, Baltimore be a good place to live,” Smith said.
But instead of tweeting about the city’s problems, Smith said, perhaps the president could do something about it. He urged Cummings to show his face more, too.
“Come out and talk to people, reach people, don’t just sit behind a desk,” Smith said. “Put your tennis shoes on and take to the streets!”
An image depicting the uprisings following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody sits on N. Calhoun Street in West Baltimore. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Antwine Hudson, who works as a chef at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, said the city Trump described seemed both familiar and completely foreign.
“There’s a lot of people in pain, a lot of homeless, a lot of drug abuse,” said Hudson, 40, adding that the city can be “dangerous.” But there’s so much more to the place he calls “my city,” he said.
He said Trump should take a stroll downtown by the harbor, stop by Lexington Market, visit an art gallery or attend a Ravens game sometime — or even swing through nearby Catonsville, where Hudson grew up.
“You know what, parts of it may be ugly and broken, but all of it’s my home, and it’s beautiful to me,” Hudson said.
Scott urged Trump to open his eyes to the points his tweets overlooked and offered an olive branch.
“If he wants to actually do things, we have a list of things he can help with,” Scott said. “But if he doesn’t, we will continue and press on without him. Baltimore never gives up — we will do it alone, we will do it without him, but we would do it with him as well.”