JAMESTOWN, Va. (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that black legislators boycotting his appearance at a Virginia event commemorating the 400th anniversary of the rise of American democracy are going “against their own people.”
Trump claimed African Americans “love the job” he’s doing and are “happy as hell” with his recent comments criticizing a majority black district in the Baltimore area and its congressman. He spoke at the White House before heading to historic Jamestown.
Black state lawmakers are staying away from Trump’s speech, in part over his disparaging comments about minority leaders.
A last-minute announcement that the president would participate in the Jamestown commemoration of the first representative assembly in the Western Hemisphere injected tension into an event years in the making. Some other top Democrats also are boycotting in protest.
African Americans continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the president’s performance. According to Gallup polling, approval among black Americans has hovered around 1 in 10 over the course of Trump’s presidency, with 8% approving in June.
Demonstrators gathered Tuesday morning near the site where Trump is to speak.
“The commemoration of the birth of this nation and its democracy will be tarnished unduly with the participation of the President, who continues to make degrading comments toward minority leaders, promulgate policies that harm marginalized communities, and use racist and xenophobic rhetoric,” the caucus said in a statement Monday.
The boycott follows Trump’s weekend comments referring to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ majority black Baltimore-area district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” A caucus statement didn’t specifically mention Cummings but said Trump’s “repeated attacks on Black legislators and comments about Black communities makes him ill-suited to honor and commemorate such a monumental period in history.”
Black Caucus chairman Del. Lamont Bagby told The Associated Press in an interview that the group reached a unanimous decision to boycott the event more than a week ago but that the president has “continued his attacks” since then, including with his remarks about Cummings’ district.
The anniversary comes at a time of heightened election-year partisanship in the aftermath of political scandals that rocked Virginia’s top state elected leadership.
In Washington, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the caucus was pushing “a political agenda.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Heading to Jamestown, Virginia. Word is the Democrats will make it as uncomfortable as possible, but that’s ok because today is not about them!”
Caucus members also pledged to boycott the rest of a weeklong series of events marking the anniversary and have instead planned alternative commemorations Tuesday in Richmond, Virginia’s capital.
At an early-morning ceremony, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam noted that while the ideals of freedom and representative government flourished in Jamestown four centuries ago, a ship carrying stolen African people who would be sold into slavery arrived in Virginia just weeks after that first assembly.
“So today, as we hold these commemorations of the first representative assembly in the free world, we have to remember who it included, and who it did not,” Northam said. “That’s the paradox of Virginia, of America, and of our representative democracy.”
Trump is scheduled to give remarks later Tuesday morning, joining with state and national leaders and others at a commemorative session of the Virginia General Assembly.
Today’s Virginia General Assembly, considered the oldest continuously operating legislative body in North America, grew out of the assembly that first gathered in 1619.
The anniversary comes as lawmakers in Virginia are grappling with the fallout from scandals that engulfed the state’s top three elected officials earlier this year.
A blackface photo scandal nearly destroyed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s career. Then, as it looked like Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax might ascend to the governorship, two women accused him of sexual assault. Fairfax, who plans to attend Tuesday, has vehemently denied those allegations.
Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat, has separately faced calls to resign after acknowledging he dressed in blackface decades ago.
All three men remain in office.