Democrats warn of Trump trap

House Democrats up in arms over President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense 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 CummingsBaltimore unveils plaques for courthouse to be named after Elijah Cummings GOP leaders encourage retiring lawmakers to give up committee posts Pelosi taps Virginia Democrat for key post on economic panel 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 RichmondCongress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran Election security, ransomware dominate cyber concerns for 2020 Trump nominates DHS senior cyber director 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) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay 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 LawrenceHouse Democrat walks back remark favoring censure over impeachment Jane Fonda calls for protecting water resources at weekly DC climate protest DCCC adds senior staffers after summer departures 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 TlaibBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Democrats press Trump administration to stop DNA collection from detained migrants MORE (Mich.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Donald Trump' if the US doesn't elect a progressive MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe DCCC's 'blacklist' protects a white male political status quo Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE (Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez rips 'public charge' decision: 'The American Dream isn't a private club with a cover charge' Democrat questions new border chief's involvement in Facebook group with racist, sexist posts The DCCC's 'blacklist' protects a white male political status quo 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 TrumpOvernight Energy: Study finds 'forever chemicals' in more locations | Trump officials approve Keystone XL pipeline right-of-way | Warren asks banks for climate plans Gore praises Greta Thunberg after meeting: 'Nobody speaks truth to power as she does' Ivanka Trump refuses to criticize Greta Thunberg: 'She's elevated awareness' MORE, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump to release Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday Suspicions cloud Trump's Middle East peace plan Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges 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 BassOmar calls on US to investigate Turkey over possible war crimes in Syria McConnell takes heat from all sides on impeachment Sunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial 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 PelosiHouse passes bill aimed at bolstering Holocaust education Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — NFL social media accounts hacked | Dem questions border chief over controversial Facebook group | Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views Meadows: Republicans who break with Trump could face political repercussions 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.”