WASHINGTON (AP) — A top White House aide on Sunday defended President Donald Trump's disparaging tweets about an influential black Democratic congressman and his Baltimore district as a justified response to the lawmaker's criticism of administration border policies.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney insisted that Trump's comments were not racist but simply a reaction to what he perceives to be inaccurate statements by Rep. Elijah Cummings about conditions in which children are being held in detention at the U.S.-Mexico border.
At a hearing last week , Cummings accused a top administration official of wrongly calling reports of filthy, overcrowded border facilities "unsubstantiated."
"When the president hears lies like that, he's going to fight back," Mulvaney told "Fox News Sunday."
On Saturday, Trump lashed out in tweets against Cummings, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, claiming his Baltimore-area district is "considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States."
It was the president's latest assault on a prominent lawmaker, and the people he represents, two weeks after he sparked nationwide controversy with racist tweets directed at four congresswomen of color.
Mulvaney insisted that Trump would criticize any lawmaker, no matter their race, in a similar way if he felt the person spoke unfairly about his policies.
"It has absolutely zero to do with race," he said. "This is what the president does. He fights, and he's not wrong to do so."
Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, said Trump was "right to raise" the challenges faced in Cummings' district at the same time while Cummings and other Democrats are "chasing down" the Russia investigation undertaken by Robert Mueller and pursuing "this bizarre impeachment crusade."
The chief of staff later told CBS' "Face the Nation" that he understands why some people view Trump's comments as racist, "but that doesn't mean that it is racist."
"The president is pushing back against what he sees is wrong," he added. "It's how he's done it in the past and he'll continue to do it in the future."
Cummings is leading multiple investigations of the president's governmental dealings. He responded directly to Trump on Twitter, 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."
Cummings has also drawn the president's ire for investigations touching on his family members serving in the White House.
Trump's comments against Cummings drew swift condemnation from Democrats over the weekend, including some of the party's presidential candidates. Statements from a spokesman for Maryland's Republican governor and from the lieutenant governor defended Cummings' district and its people.
Cummings' district is about 55% black and includes a large portion of Baltimore. It is home to the national headquarters of the NAACP and Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The city has struggled with violent crime, with more than 300 homicides for four years in a row. It has crumbling infrastructure and a police department under federal oversight.
Cummings' district also extends into Maryland's Baltimore and Howard counties.