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Democrats warn of Trump trap

House Democrats up in arms over President TrumpDonald TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm 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 CummingsBottom line House Democrats reintroduce bill to reduce lobbyist influence Trump voters and progressives have a lot in common — and Biden can unite them 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 RichmondPadilla has 'big Chuck Taylors to fill' in replacing Harris Bottom line Biden pledges action on guns amid resistance 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) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 LawrenceBill introduced to create RBG monument on Capitol Hill Congressional Black Caucus unveils '100 Day Plan' Six ways to visualize a divided America 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 TlaibProgressives push White House to overturn wage ruling Six ways to visualize a divided America Jamaal Bowman's mother dies of COVID-19: 'I share her legacy with all of you' MORE (Mich.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarOmar introduces bill to sanction Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi killing Progressives push White House to overturn wage ruling Mehdi Hasan gets MSNBC Sunday prime-time show MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyPressley says image of Black custodial staff cleaning up Capitol after Jan. 6 riot 'haunts' her DeJoy apologizes for mail delays while defending Postal Service changes DeJoy set for grilling by House Oversight panel MORE (Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - J&J vax rollout today; third woman accuses Cuomo 'Lucky': Inside Ocasio-Cortez's endorsement of Sanders Biden officials urge patience on immigration amid border surge 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 TrumpIvanka TrumpTrump Jr. was deposed in inauguration funds probe Former Trump officials eye bids for political office The Hill's Morning Report - Disaster politics hobble Cruz, Cuomo MORE, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerBiden to speak with Saudi king 'soon' as pressure builds for Khashoggi report Biden to speak with Saudi king ahead of Khashoggi report: report Former Trump officials eye bids for political office 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 BassSunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues Black Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head George Floyd police reform bill reintroduced in House 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 PelosiBiden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority Some Republicans say proxy voting gives advantage to Democrats Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress 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.”