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Allegations of racism rankle both parties as Trump, Congress continue war of words

Delegation silence on Trump comments called 'lost opportunity'

FILE - President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, July 19, 2019.
FILE - President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, July 19, 2019.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's congressional delegation had no response Tuesday to President Donald Trump's escalating verbal attacks on a leading black congressman and the city of Baltimore.

The silence comes as a former Utah congresswoman, Mia Love, is calling on the president to apologize for weeks of tweets and comments that first targeted four minority Democratic congresswomen and now, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Cummings, chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee once headed by former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, has been labeled "racist" and his district, "a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” by Trump. Trump, in turn, has been called a racist for his verbal sparring with Cummings and other members of Congress.

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 2, 2109 file photo, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., leads a meeting to call for subpoenas after a career official in the White House security office says dozens of people in President Donald
FILE - In this Tuesday, April 2, 2109 file photo, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., leads a meeting to call for subpoenas after a career official in the White House security office says dozens of people in President Donald Trump's administration were granted security clearances despite "disqualifying issues" in their backgrounds, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite

The president has also alleged corruption, tweeting Tuesday that billions of dollars "pumped in" to Baltimore "was stolen or wasted. Ask Elijah Cummings where it went. He should investigate himself with his Oversight Committee."

Love, who's said she could run again for the seat she lost in 2018 to Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, was the country's first black GOP congresswoman.

Now a CNN commentator, Love said earlier this week that "enough is enough" from Trump, a fellow Republican, during a panel discussion on the cable network. "Anything less than an apology is unacceptable to me."

Her words earned a "thank you" from a Democrat on the panel, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Love followed up Tuesday with a similar analysis for the University of Sydney's United States Centre in Australia, where she serves as a nonresident senior fellow. The analysis was also posted online by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Saying she believes his comments were racist even though "this president would be no less insulting to political adversaries who are white and male," Love said they "send the wrong message and should be repudiated by Republicans of all stripes."

But Utah's congressional delegation did not respond to requests Tuesday by the Deseret News for comment on the impact of the president's racially charged statements.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told the Washington Post that Trump's statements were "another act of political theater," but declined to say whether he agrees with the president that Cummings is a racist. So did Sen. Mike Lee, also R-Utah.

In the U.S. House, McAdams was the only one of Utah's four representatives to vote for a resolution earlier this month condemning the president's "racist comments" about four minority Democratic congresswomen.

Trump has tweeted that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts should all "go back" to "the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

FILE - U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks as, from left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019.
FILE - U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks as, from left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite, Deseret News

Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, said members of Utah's congressional delegation are in "uncharted territory" when it comes to deciding how best to respond to racist statements from the president.

Especially since all House members are up for reelection in 2020. Trump, who won Utah in 2016 with less than half of the vote, is expected to be at the top of the ticket as the Republican nominee for president next year.

"They just would probably rather that the whole thing would just go away," Cann said. "But there is a point, I think, where there is a moral imperative to call things that are blatantly wrong, wrong."

When — and maybe even if — that point is reached remains to be seen, he said.

Clearly, Utah's GOP members of Congress "would be nuts to come out and say, 'Oh, we agree wholeheartedly with the president on these tweets.' That, in my opinion would be political suicide," Cann said.

But even so, he said they face the same type of political tribalism as their counterparts around the country, "stuck between condemning racist tweets and supporting their party's president," making silence an appealing option.

Having to see that as a choice even in Utah, Cann said, means that "everything these days is about, are you with Trump or against Trump. We're forgetting we have a country to govern rather a president to monitor."

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the latest round of tweets and comments from the president are directed at a specific part of the country.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019. Trump announced that Guatemala is signing an agreement to restrict asylum applications to the U.S. from Central America.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FILE - President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019.
Carolyn Kaster

That makes it easier for elected officials outside of the Baltimore area to stay mum about Trump's claims about a city under Democratic control and made up of a majority of African Americans.

"It's a controversial issue that doesn't directly concern their home districts," Karpowitz said. "There may be wisdom in staying out of it, especially given the ways in which the president lashes out at people who criticize them."

But it's also a missed chance to take a leadership role on the topic of racism, especially by Republicans, he said.

"It's a lost opportunity for people of goodwill to shape the public discourse in more productive ways. We don't always have to go to the lowest common denominator here," Karpowitz said.

"When it's a repeated pattern like this, and it's a pattern likely to be extremely offensive and hurtful to minority groups especially, but also to our public discourse more broadly, the failure to speak up is a failure of political leadership," he said.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake branch, said until Trump is called out by others in his party, he's going to keep finding new targets for racist attacks to distract voters from the ongoing investigations into his administration.

"It's up to our congressional folks to say we have people of color as our constituents here in Utah and we're going to speak up against the behavior and the language. When they're quiet, it's like they're approving of what's being said," she said.

"We know our folks are better than that," Williams said. "All of them, they know racist talk and language when they hear it, and they should denounce it very strongly."