STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When I was a kid, the Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote an article disparaging my home city of Indianapolis. Indianapolis residents then wrote articles dumping on Chicago. It was mostly fun. That sort of sparring takes on another dimension when it is done by the president of the United States while criticizing a lawmaker who happens to be black.
On a quiet Saturday, the president seized attention by writing on Twitter about Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings and saying that he represented a rat-infested city - Baltimore. The president said nobody would want to live there. Pastor G.J. Barnes is one of those responding. He heads one of the most prominent churches in Baltimore, the Empowerment Temple AME church, and he told NPR that the president should apologize.
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G J BARNES: The president needs to specifically apologize to the city and the citizens of Baltimore. They didn't provoke anything of him, and the fact that he used the words that no human would want to live there is a direct attack on humans who live there. And I think that what the president should do is understand that he took an oath to preside over the United States of America, and Baltimore is just a part of these United States as anywhere else.
INSKEEP: Brandon Scott is on the line now. He is president of the Baltimore City Council. Good morning, sir.
BRANDON SCOTT: Good morning. Good morning.
INSKEEP: So do you want to live in Baltimore?
SCOTT: Well, I love Baltimore. I've lived here my entire life. I am a human being, despite what the president thinks. I know that's hard for him to understand, as I'm the descendants of Africans who were forced into this country, and he thinks that we are not human beings. But I am.
INSKEEP: Now, you just brought race into this, which, at least in that series of tweets, the president did not specifically reference. Is there something that makes this seem specifically racist to you?
SCOTT: Well, when you say that it's a rat-infested place and that no human beings want to live there and you're attacking a majority black city and a black Democratic leader, based on what you've been doing in the past week, attacking minority congresswomen, you know this is who this president is. No one should be surprised by what he does or what he says.
What we should be focused on is that he's the president of these United States, and instead of uplifting an American city, using his power and authority to help Baltimore and all other cities that are struggling with the issues that we face, he instead likes to turn himself back into a Twitter troll and just beat up on cities via social media.
INSKEEP: I guess we should mention a lot of people love Baltimore. I go spend time in Baltimore with my family from time to time. It's a beautiful city in many ways. But it does have its problems, does it not? I mean, a serious drug problem, serious crime problem, some blighted neighborhoods.
SCOTT: Yeah, they do. And listen - that's the reason why I got into service. I grew up in Baltimore, in a neighborhood that no one thinks about until Preakness is coming around.
SCOTT: But if you understand Baltimore, you know that these issues are longstanding and that these issues are rooted very much so in systematic inequality and systematic racism in Baltimore, which is basically the birthplace of redlining and blockbusting through legislation. And this why, on the city council last year, I pushed through a equity legislation that will force our city government from now on to focus and work through a lens of equity so that we are not purposely creating the situations in which I grew up in and that people still live in today.
But each and every day, people are working hard in Baltimore to help those neighborhoods, to help those individuals. We have a lot of work to do, and that's why I don't want to waste time talking about the president and how he feels. Let's talk about what the president can do for Baltimore. If he truly wants to help us, he can do that. If not, we'll push on without him.
INSKEEP: Well, now, you said you don't want to waste time talking about the president. But, of course, many people are, and I want to ask about that. Our White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has laid out a bit of the timeline here. It was a relatively quiet Saturday, and then there was a Fox News segment that apparently criticized Congressman Cummings and the city that he represents. And shortly afterward, the president magnified that story, took it from conservative media to essentially all media by tweeting about it in the way that he did.
Did you have conversations among yourselves as Baltimore officials about whether you wanted to respond to this attack that came out of nowhere or whether you just wanted to ignore it?
SCOTT: Well, we - what we decided is that we will always defend the honor of our city and the honor of Baltimoreans, who are Americans, despite what the president might think, and we have to do that. But I decided that I would do that in a different way. Say - call it like it is, say what he said is wrong, say that it's racist, but then also remind people he is the leader of the free world. He has the power to help Baltimoreans and any American who's living in a city that has these issues. He is choosing not to do that.
What we should be talking about is that this president could help Baltimoreans by delivering on his promise, campaign promise, to bring infrastructure improvements to the city, which would not only rebuild us in a physical sense but could help people in West Baltimore, in East Baltimore achieve careers and jobs. He could help us find adequate affordable housing for Baltimoreans and people who live in cities across the country through HUD and other means.
Instead, he and his HUD director, who lived in Baltimore for decades and knows what we need here, each and every year are trying to eliminate HUD in its entirety. That's not what we need from a president.
INSKEEP: Oh, you're talking about Ben Carson now, secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In the...
SCOTT: Yes, yes. He knows what we need, but they're not delivering on that.
INSKEEP: In the time that we have left, I want to ask about your response to another presidential tweet today. It involves Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, who said on Twitter that he's heading to Baltimore. And so the president is immediately responding, and now he is - the president is making this explicitly about race. He tweets, "I have known Al for 25 years. Al is a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score, just doing his thing, hates whites and cops." That's a direct quote from the president of the United States. What do you make of that, Mr. Scott?
SCOTT: We know the president is trying to stoke his base. He's trying to play to the lowest common denominator of American society to get reelected. And what we have to do is remain focused, remain focused on the work, remain focused on helping improve the lives of Baltimoreans, in my case, and those who represent, in federal government, all Americans. And that's what we have to do. We cannot stoop to his level. We know that this president is racist. We know that this president is unfit to be president. We have to focus on the work, and then we will unelect him in 2020.
INSKEEP: Mr. Scott, thanks very much.
SCOTT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Brandon Scott is president of the Baltimore City Council, and he speaks with us on this Monday after a weekend when the president spent part of his time criticizing the city of Baltimore, as well as one of its representatives, a representative in congress, Elijah Cummings, who has been investigating the Trump administration.
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