When Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib accused Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of racism earlier this year, one of his “best friends,” House Oversight Committee chairman and Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings immediately jumped to his defense.
When Cummings was attacked on similar grounds by President Donald Trump over the weekend, it took a bit longer for Meadows to publicly repay the favor. On Saturday and Sunday, Trump went after Cummings on Twitter, calling the veteran Democratic lawmaker a “racist” and his district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Trump’s comments hung in the air for days, sparking yet another conversation about the President’s race-focused rhetoric. Republicans largely stayed silent, including Meadows, whose warm relationship with Cummings prompted questions about his reticence to defend his friend.
When Meadows finally did issue a reply, it came two days later and second-hand, delivered live on air by CNN contributor and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. The statement was a perfect distillation of the way Republicans have tip-toed around Trump’s inflammatory language about race — and avoided criticizing the President directly.
“No one works harder for his district than Elijah. He’s passionate about the people he represents, and no, Elijah is not a racist,” Santorum read aloud. The statement also absolved the President of being a racist and included a promise by Meadows to “go to Baltimore with President Trump to see what they could do to remediate some of the problems they have there.”
To be sure, Meadows finds himself in bind. The North Carolina Republican has cultivated a close and fruitful relationship with Trump, who often focuses his ire toward minority members of Congress. Meadows’ friendship with Cummings gave him no choice but to come to the Democrat’s defense. That’s especially true following the incident with Tlaib this past February, when Meadows publicly called on that friendship to defend himself.
Former Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican and CNN contributor, says that she texted with Meadows Monday morning and urged him to “do the right thing” and stand publicly alongside Cummings.
“I told him that, look, it’s times like this where you know what you’re made of,” Love told CNN.
Even so, Meadows took his time. At a public event at the White House earlier on Monday, he ignored questions from CNN about Trump’s tweets, in which Trump disparaged Cummings as a “brutal bully” and called his district a “very dangerous and filthy place.” Trump also said that “no human being would want to live” in the district, which is 59% black.
The two congressmen’s close relationship, forged during their shared time on the Oversight committee, reflect both men’s congenial personalities. Cummings and Meadows have also bonded on policy work together, joining forces on legislation to aide whistleblowers and to reform the Post Office.
“I have a good relationship with Meadows. We don’t agree on probably 85% of things, of issues, but he is not disagreeable,” Cummings told reporters last December. “So we’re able to sit down and work out things we agree on. And he has always maintained a high-level of civility, which I don’t see how you can even get anything done unless you at least have that.”
Asked if Meadows has spoken with Cummings since Trump’s tweets, a spokesman for Meadows declined to comment. Cummings did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Love, one of the few black Republicans to serve in Congress in recent years, said she hopes Republicans will speak out about Trump’s rhetoric toward Cummings. “I really do think that the only the way this will be put in check is if people like Mark Meadows say this is not who we are,” she said.
Very few Republicans have denounced Trump’s comments. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who has been critical of the President, called the tweets about Cummings and Baltimore “outrageous and inappropriate.” Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has been close to Trump, said the tweets were a “bad idea.”
Both parties have had to address extreme rhetoric from their own members in recent months. In January, House GOP leaders stripped Rep. Steve King from his committee assignments after the Iowa congressman lamented that the phrase “white supremacist” was considered offensive.
Not long after, Democratic leaders in the House spoke out against comments from freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, who had suggested support for Israel among members of Congress was driven by donations. Several members, including a number of Jewish Democrats, said Omar’s comments engaged in anti-Semitic tropes.
Republicans have struggled in particular with racist and racially focused comments from President Trump, including tweets just a few weeks ago in which Trump said four Democratic House members of color, all of whom are American citizens and three of whom were born in the United States, should “go back” to their home countries.
Love says she does not believe her former colleagues in the Republican House conference agree with Trump’s comments about Cummings and Baltimore. “But being silent is in some ways condoning it,” she said.