The Twitter feud between Donald Trump and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis dominated political chatter in Washington over the weekend, highlighting questions of legitimacy and racism that Democrats hope will dog the next administration.
The fallout from Mr. Trump’s tweets blasting Mr. Lewis after the Georgia Democrat said he doesn’t see the Republican as a “legitimate president” was the lead story on every Sunday political talk show, with the Trump transition team defending the president-elect.
Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, called on President Obama to tell Democrats to stop trying to delegitimatize the election of Mr. Trump.
“President Obama could step up,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“The administration can do a lot of good by telling folks that are on their side of the aisle, ‘Look, we many have lost the election on the Democratic side, but it’s time to come together and stop questioning legitimacy,’” he said.
Mr. Lewis isn’t the first Democrat to challenge Mr. Trump’s legitimacy. But his blunt declaration in a TV interview just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day — and Mr. Trump’s forceful response on Twitter — created the perfect political storm.
Recommended by Mr. Lewis said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that aired Saturday that the inauguration this week will be the first he will miss since his election to Congress in 1986.
“I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” said Mr. Lewis, who led the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Democratic leaders have increasingly questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Trump, citing evidence that Russian hackers attempted to interfere in the election and allegations that Mr. Trump was involved.
The allegation that Mr. Trump or his associates contacted the Russians during the campaign about email hacks aimed at hurting Mrs. Clinton were in a purported Russian spy dossier, which U.S. intelligence officials and news organizations have not authenticated.
Mr. Trump fired back at Mr. Lewis in a series of Twitter posts, saying the congressman should focus on problems in his Atlanta district. He tweeted: “All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!”
Mr. Trump later tweeted: “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”
Democrats, including prominent black lawmakers such as Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, characterized Mr. Trump’s rebuttal as racist, a label critics have applied to Mr. Trump since he launched his presidential campaign.
“Cory Booker and John Lewis are right about is to talk about the racist past of Donald Trump,” Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said on the ABC show. “We all remember that Trump was one of the leaders of the so-called birther movement trying to delegitimize the presidency of our first African-American president, Barack Obama, which is an outrage.”
Mr. Trump later canceled a visit scheduled for Monday to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He cited scheduling conflicts, but Democratic critics said it was because of blowback from his clash with Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Priebus said Mr. Lewis‘ attack on Mr. Trump’s legitimacy was “insanity, and it’s wrong.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Mr. Obama has publicly vouched for the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s election. He noted that he said as much in his final speech as president, referring to Mr. Trump as “the freely elected president of the United States.”
However, Mr. McDonough said allegations of Russian hacking and potential complicity by Mr. Trump “are by no means trivial concerns.”
Mr. McDonough also said it was Mr. Trump who should be extending an olive branch to Mr. Lewis.
“My hope would be that the president-elect will reach out to someone as consequential and who is such a leader as John Lewis — who has done so much in the course of his life — to try to work this out,” Mr. McDonough said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, defended Mr. Trump.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for congressman Lewis. He’s an icon, if you will, and we all have the most respect for him. I just think that was uncalled for,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Mr. Manchin said the divisive rhetoric was playing into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bid to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral process.
“If we’re concerned about the Russians and we know the Russians want to be involved, Putin wants to be involved in altering our process, then he will succeed if he sees this bickering going back and forth. That’s what we have to stop. We’re bigger than this,” he said.
Mr. Manchin has emerged as one of Mr. Trump’s primary allies among Senate Democrats. He also sits in one of the party’s most vulnerable Senate seats in 2018.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of Mr. Trump’s former Republican primary rivals, said Mr. Lewis‘ legendary activism shouldn’t render him immune to criticism.
“I do appreciate him being a civil rights icon, but I would also say that that doesn’t make us immune from criticism or debate,” he said on “CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“None of us actually want to be considered to be racially insensitive, and so it’s a very, very important subject, but I think we shouldn’t ignore that people are partisan,” said Mr. Paul.
Originally Published in The Washington Times
Edited by David Ho for accuracy and length