This week, HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended President Trump’s characterization of Baltimore as “rat and rodent infested,” and a place “no human being would want to live there.”
The controversy arose through a series of tweets by Trump attacking Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), whose district includes part of Baltimore. Representative Cummings is African-American, and the tweets have been condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike as racist.
Secretary Carson made his reputation as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. He spent decades living in Baltimore, a city with a majority African-American population. He is also the only African-American in Trump’s cabinet. Supporters of Baltimore expected he would offer words in defense of the city. Instead, he recalled his time working at Johns Hopkins to support the president’s ugly characterization of Baltimore.
In an interview with Fox News, he told how he often had concerns for his young patients when it was time for them to go home. Carson said,
I was in a horrible dilemma, because some of those kids had to go back into homes in East Baltimore that were infested with rats and roaches and ticks and mold and lead and violence, and I didn’t want to send them back. Sometimes I would even consider, you know, extra tests so they could stay in the hospital an extra day or two.
Secretary Carson went on to defend President Trump by citing areas where the president’s policies have benefited African-Americans. He pointed to rising wages, a drop in unemployment and his support for prison reform. Carson went on to say that because Trump’s policies have helped some African-Americans, he is not a racist,
All of these things are happening. These are not things that a person who is a racist would do. And we allow ourselves to be distracted by these things.
As Chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, Representative Cummings is overseeing a number of investigations into the administration. Just days before Trump’s tweets, Representative Cummings had issued subpoenas for testimony from several administration officials about the use of private email for government business. Included were subpoenas for the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both senior advisors in the White House.
The tweets prompting Secretary Carson’s defense started with the president lashing out at Representative Cummings about border security issues. In attacking Cummings, Trump also attacked the greater Baltimore community with racially charged language in his tweet,
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. 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.
Cumming (sic) district is a disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place. (7/27/19)
Representative Cummings replied via Twitter the first day, saying,
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. (7/27/19)
As condemnations of his attacks grew the next day, President Trump defended himself with another attack against Congressman Cummings and his defenders,
There is nothing racist in stating plainly what most people already know, that Elijah Cummings has done a terrible job for the people of his district, and of Baltimore itself. Dems always play the race card when they are unable to win with facts. Shame! (7/28/19)
If racist Elijah Cummings would focus more of his energy on helping the good people of his district, and Baltimore itself, perhaps progress could be made in fixing the mess. (7/28/19)
The president has kept up his attacks as the week wears on. He has called Representative Cummings a racist, and suggested he be investigated,
Baltimore’s numbers are the worst in the United States on Crime and the Economy. Billions of dollars have been pumped in over the years, but to no avail. The money was stolen or wasted. Ask Elijah Cummings where it went. He should investigate himself with his Oversight Committee! (7/29/19)
He has gone on to call Baltimore’s city government corrupt in a fourth day of attacks, saying in a South Lawn interview that, “Baltimore residents are living in hell,”
Baltimore has been very badly mishandled for years. As you know, Congressman Cummings has been there for a long time, he’s had a very iron hand on it. It’s a corrupt city, there’s no question about it. All you have to do is look at the facts. (7/30/19)
This is the latest in a series of controversial fights that Trump has picked with minority leaders. It follows on the heels of racist attacks made against four progressive Congresswomen of color.
They had criticized conditions at the holding facilities on the southern border. The president responded aggressively, including in his tweets, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” This was followed by the widely condemned rally where supporters started chanting “Send her back!” while Trump was attacking Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), one of the four. All of these Congresswomen are citizens. Only Omar was born outside of the U.S., having immigrated from Somalia as a child and becoming a naturalized citizen when she was 17.
Democratic members of Congress have risen to the defense of both Representative Cummings and the City of Baltimore. Some Republicans have condemned the president’s language as unpresidential and divisive.
More importantly, current and former residents have stepped up to express solidarity with the city and defend its character. It has even prompted the early release of the We Are Baltimore website, devoted to positive stories about life in Baltimore. As a public figure with roots in Baltimore, Secretary Carson is one of the few to stand by President Trump’s divisive attacks on the city and its poor minority residents.