Democrats warn of Trump trap

House Democrats up in arms over President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE’s attacks on minority lawmakers are sounding a warning to their own party heading into the 2020 elections: Don’t take the bait.

While Democrats have rushed to the defense of Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFacial recognition tools under fresh scrutiny amid police protests The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House primary in Maryland MORE (D-Md.), the prominent Congressional Black Caucus member Trump has attacked this week, they also sense the president is setting a political trap.

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Democrats won the House in 2018 campaigning on health care, income inequality and other legislative priorities, and there is concern that Trump’s rhetoric is designed simply to distract voters from those policy debates.

“I hope we don’t take the bait,” said Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondBlack Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism Gaetz tweets photo of teenage adopted son after hearing battle Tensions flare between Reps. Cedric Richmond and Matt Gaetz during police reform hearing MORE (D-La.), the former head of the Black Caucus. “The president always plays the race card when he’s having a bad news cycle. It’s easier to call people names when you don’t have anything else to point to.”

Trump himself on Tuesday said there is no strategy to his attacks on Cummings.

“There’s no strategy. I have no strategy. There’s zero strategy,” Trump said as he returned to the White House after delivering a speech in Jamestown, Va., which was boycotted by most of Virginia’s black lawmakers. “All it is is I’m pointing out facts. The most unsafe city in our country is Baltimore.”

In his recent attack on Cummings, Trump suggested the Maryland Democrat has done nothing to help his Baltimore-area district, which the president vilified as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” 

“No human being would want to live there,” Trump tweeted over the weekend.

The district, composed of about half of Baltimore and areas to the north and west, is home to almost 720,000 people, according to the Census Bureau, more than half of whom are African American. 

Trump has since doubled down, suggesting without evidence that there’s widespread financial corruption in the district and imploring Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, to “investigate himself.”

The tweets, which came just days after former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE testified before Congress on Trump’s role in Russia’s election interference, have dominated the news cycle in recent days, while leading Democrats to launch new charges of racism against the president. 

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Yet even Cummings’s staunchest defenders are suggesting they want to turn the page, concerned that focusing too intently on Trump’s rhetoric will undermine the Democrats’ policy agenda — and play right into the president’s hand. 

“We’ve got so much work to do in Congress. ... If we get sucked into this rabbit hole, spending our time reacting to every racist comment, every racist deed that this president has done,” said Rep. Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceFormer Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says public health threat of loneliness compounded by COVID-19; Trump says task force will 'evolve' Black Caucus moves to front and center in COVID fight House reverses, but Senate to return despite COVID threat MORE (D-Mich.), trailing off in exasperation. 

“I really want us to stay focused. 2020 is coming.” 

For Trump, the recent line of attacks is hardly a new strategy.

The president launched his 2016 campaign by denouncing Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.” In 2017, he responded to a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., by blaming “many sides” for the violence. He’s disparaged Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as shitholes.

At the same time, the Trump attacks on Cummings have raised eyebrows anew given their focus on a prominent black lawmaker.

Earlier this month, the president urged four freshman Democratic congresswomen of color — Reps. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (Mich.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Black lives and the CBC: What happens to a dream deferred? MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocratic strategist Andrew Feldman says Biden is moving left Hispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Nadler wins Democratic primary MORE (N.Y.) — to “go back” where they came from. 

All four are U.S. citizens, and only Omar was born abroad. 

In response, the four lawmakers accused Trump of employing divisive tactics to steer the debate in Washington away from policy matters. 

“He would love nothing more than to divide our country based on race, religion, gender orientation or immigration status,” Omar said, “because this is the only way he knows he can prevent the solidarity of us working together across all of our differences.”

Despite the warnings, House Democrats passed a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks as explicitly “racist,” which extended the news cycle on the story. 

The more recent attacks on Cummings came as the Oversight chairman is stepping up a series of high-stakes investigations into the administration. Cummings recently went head-to-head with Trump’s Homeland Security secretary over the treatment of migrants at the southern border, railing about reports that children were sitting in their own feces and could not take a shower. 

“None of us would have our children in that position,” Cummings said to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan at a hearing. “They are human beings.”

Cummings has also issued subpoenas for text messages and emails sent by Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpTrump says he's 'all for masks' despite reluctance to wear one Trump signs order directing federal government to focus on skills when hiring Trump to return to rally stage in controversial style MORE, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Mueller investigation witness George Nader sentenced to a decade in prison in child sex case Trump World boils over as campaign hits skids MORE, his son-in-law who also serves as a top aide.

Trump had McAleenan and the subpoenas on his mind when he began attacking Cummings over the weekend, The Washington Post reported.

There’s widespread debate, inside and outside the White House, about whether Trump’s divisive tactics are working to his political benefit. A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month found that the president’s popularity ticked up 5 percentage points among Republicans after he’d targeted the four freshmen, suggesting the strategy is an effective energizer of his conservative base. 

Yet Republican campaign operatives are worried about potential blowback from more moderate voters, and The New York Times reported Tuesday that several White House officials had expressed concerns during a meeting this week that Trump’s attacks on Cummings were ill-conceived.

A separate poll, released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University, underlines those GOP fears, finding that 51 percent of voters consider Trump to be a racist — a description the president has flatly denied. 

Cummings, for his part, has remained uncharacteristically quiet amid the uproar surrounding Trump’s attacks, though his allies have quickly filled the void in his defense. Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen BassKaren Ruth BassBlack Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism Susan Rice 'humbled and honored' by rumors Biden considering her for VP The Hill's Morning Report - Officials crack down as COVID-19 cases soar MORE (D-Calif.) said Trump’s words would simply bounce off the 68-year-old Cummings, the son of sharecroppers who has spent decades fighting for civil rights.

“Congressman Cummings had bottles and rocks thrown at him when he was among the first to integrate his local pool. Your words can’t touch him. He’s not scared of you. He will continue his work,” said Bass, who is traveling with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? Military bases should not be renamed, we must move forward in the spirit of reconciliation Pelosi: Trump 'himself is a hoax' MORE (D-Calif.) and Black Caucus members this week in Ghana to mark the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to America. 

“I’m proud to call him a mentor and a friend,” Bass said, “and I look forward to continuing to work alongside him.”