The politics of President Trump's feud with Rep. Elijah Cummings

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," July 29, 2019. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


MICK MULVANEY, INCOMING ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The president is attacking Mr. Cummings for saying things that are not sure about the border. I think it's right for the president to raise the issue, and it has absolutely zero to do with race.

REV. AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: He has a particular venom for blacks and people of color. He doesn't refer to any of his other opponents or critics as infested.

SEN. RICK SCOTT, (R-FL): I didn't do the tweets, Chuck. I can't talk about why he did what he did. But I'm very disappointed in people like Congressman Cummings.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, (D) MARYLAND: He is a racist president. None of us want to be here having to talk about that. And yet if we just allow these comments to go, we risk normalizing that kind of conduct.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Here we are after a weekend of reaction to the president's tweets.  This is exactly what he tweeted on Saturday. "Representative Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men and women of the Border Patrol about conditions at the southern border, when actually his Baltimore district is far worse and more dangerous. His district is considered the worst in the USA. As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the border is clean, efficient, and well-run, just very crowded. Cummings district is a disgusting rat and a rodent-infested mess.  If he spend more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place."

Elijah Cummings tweeting, "Mr. President, I go home to my district daily.  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, but it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents."

So what about this? We are with the panel now, let's bring them in, Matthew Continetti, editor in chief of the "Washington Free Beacon," Susan Page, Washington bureau chief at "USA Today," and FOX News analyst and host of FOX's Media Buzz Howard Kurtz. OK, Susan, we go through this cycle, and these tweets happen, the outrage happens, and then it does absorb a lot of news coverage. But this one seemed to get a lot of attention.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": This came of course in the wake of the president's provocative tweets about the four Congresswomen of color, telling them to go back from where they originally came from. So it is part of a theme that he's been striking for some time. And it puts Democrats in a little bit of a bind because I think they would prefer to talk about some other things, but it is impossible, I think they think, to not respond to these comments from the president that they describe as racist and offensive. And here's the question, are we going to have another year of this? Is this going to be the tone of the presidential campaign in 2020?

BAIER: Right. Speaking of 2020, one of the candidates had a soundbite from before, Bernie Sanders, about Baltimore, and it was referenced by the president this weekend.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, (D-VT) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you're in a wealthy nation. You would think that you were in a third world country.


BAIER: The president took to that and said "Crazy Bernie Sanders recently equated the city of Baltimore to a third world country. Based on that statement I assume that Bernie must now be labeled a racist just as a Republican would be if we used that term and standard. The fact is Baltimore can be brought back, maybe even to new heights of success and glory, but not with King Elijah and that crew. When the leaders of Baltimore want to see the city rise again, I am in a very beautiful oval- shaped office waiting for your call." Matthew?

MATTHEW CONTINETTI, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "WASHINGTON FREE BEACON": He's also the president of the United States. And I think what's missing from some of the tweets was any kind of plan for how Baltimore might be improved.  You have a definite negative criticism of the political representation that has failed to solve a lot of Baltimore's problems over the decades. But the president in 2016 gave a speech where he laid out a new deal for black America. And since he's become president for that, there's been very little follow-through and in fact some regression.

So I think it's up to the president to propose solutions. And I was chaired by Mark Meadows, who is no Democrat, no liberal, saying maybe the wrong target was Elijah Cummings. And he also offered to go to Baltimore with the president so they can discuss how to improve the situation there.

BAIER: Elijah Cummings defended Mark Meadows in one of those hearings.  Meadows tweeting that both Elijah Cummings and President Trump are friends, neither of them are racist. Moving on, saying for solutions. Howie, if you look at the stats of Baltimore, the murder rate, second-highest behind St. Louis, 180 homicides, violent crime rate, unemployment rate higher, individuals below the poverty line, 22 percent, population 602, that's down since 2000. Those are facts, those are numbers. But obviously all the people living there are Americans, and they're both constituents of Elijah Cummings and of President Donald J. Trump.

HOWARD KURTZ, FOX NEWS MEDIA ANALYST: And of HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who is from Baltimore. Look, there is no question that Baltimore has massive crime and poverty problems, like many other inner cities. It is entirely fair to blame that on its congressmen as opposed to the corrupt local leadership where two of the three previous mayors resigned under a cloud of scandal?

The president knew full well these tweeted attacks on Elijah Cummings would bring accusations of racism because they came on the heels of the attacks on the congresswoman, and today expanded to Al Sharpton, who does have a checkered racial past going back to the Tawana Brawley fabrication, which I covered.

But at the same time the president believes this kind of divisive politics benefits him, riles up his side, and by using over-the-top language -- no human being would want to live there. Al Sharpton hates whites. The congresswomen hate America -- he knows this won't be a one or two day story. Indeed, this is been a raging controversy of more than two weeks now. And I think, despite the cost of the criticism, that's where the president wants it.

BAIER: You covered this on your show, CNN anchor covering this, take a listen to Victor Blackwell.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: The president says about Congressman Cummings district -- that no human would want to live there. 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 people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans, too.


BAIER: Your thoughts on that?

KURTZ: I understand Victor Blackwell being very emotional as a Baltimore native about that, and that was a genuine moment that's really gone viral.  But he is a news anchor on a network that has a lot of anti-Trump commentary, and I just question whether that is the role of a news anchor.  That wasn't even legal commentary. And he's been made into a hero because many people in the media agree with his portrayal of the president as being racially insensitive.

BAIER: We are not robots. Everybody has emotions and thoughts about things, but we are supposed to cover it fairly, and he put his emotions out there, Susan. Your thoughts on that?

PAGE: It's true. It seemed sincere. Do you think it was sincere?

KURTZ: Absolutely sincere, but again, he is not a commentator. An opinion person could say that, and I would not blink.

PAGE: I guess I think the question would be resolved if it had been labeled as personal commentary as opposed to a news show. We are supposed to cover the news, and sometimes that's a struggle. That's a struggle every time there's a mass shooting. That's a struggle sometimes when you're covering politics as well, although the stakes are lower than with a mass shooting. But that is our training and our responsibility.

CONTINETTI: I think you see in that clip the dangers of going down this political strategy of ratcheting up the talk on race. Race is a fundamentally problem for American society, and it's something that a lot of people hold very deep personal views about. And so by emphasizing it, you are really polarizing this country.

There is a downside politically. If you think about it, Donald Trump barely won independents in the exit poll in 2016 by four points. If you look at the polls, the group that hates these tweets the most are independents. So you might be able to rally your side to your cause with these tweets, but you are turning off others.

BAIER: And Susan, he goes to these rallies and says lowest African- American unemployment rate and says to African-American communities, look, you're doing much better. But yet, does he lose because of these tweets?

PAGE: And his justice initiative also disproportionately --

BAIER: The prison reform, yes.

PAGE: The prison reform movement helps African-Americans. But I think this makes it very unlikely that he's going to be getting African-American support. And the risk for him is that it will drive up African-American turnout for Democrats.

KURTZ: It's a risky strategy, but it's a deliberate strategy. And what he ought to do is go to Baltimore and talk about what he can do for cities like Baltimore, but that doesn't seem to be in the playbook right now.

BAIER: We'll see.

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