JAMESTOWN, Va. (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday marked the 400th anniversary of American democracy and its gift “of the country we love,” but his celebration of what began as an experiment in self-government was boycotted by black Virginia lawmakers incensed by Trump’s continued disparagement of a veteran black congressman and the majority-black district he represents.
The uplifting rhetoric from Trump marking 400 years of representative government contrasted sharply with his stream of attacks against U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, including before and after the event.
Trump said in remarks to members of Virginia’s General Assembly and other dignitaries that the United States has had many achievements in its history, but “none exceeds the triumph that we are here to celebrate today.”
“Self-government in Virginia did not just give us a state we love — in a very true sense it gave us the country we love, the United States of America,” he said.
The General Assembly, considered the oldest continuously operating legislative body in North America, grew out of a gathering that convened in July 1619.
But as Trump addressed the lawmakers and others in a tent on the lawn of a history museum near the site of the original Jamestown colony, members of Virginia’s legislative black caucus held an emotional ceremony about 60 miles away in Richmond, at the site of a once-notorious slave jail, where they took turns condemning the president.
Del. Delores McQuinn, who refused to say Trump’s name and instead called him “the tenant in the White House,” choked back tears as she said his critiques of minority members of Congress were aimed at “every person of color in the United States of America.” She urged the crowd to “reclaim the soul and fabric of this country.”
Trump said as he departed the White House that lawmakers participating in the previously announced boycott were going “against their own people.”
The Republican president claimed African Americans “love the job” he’s doing and are “happy as hell” with his criticisms of Cummings and his majority-black Baltimore-area district.
The attacks on Cummings closely followed the president’s criticism earlier this month of four progressive Democratic female members of Congress.
The president’s unsubstantiated claim that African Americans are happy with him contradicts polling showing that blacks continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessment of his performance. According to Gallup polling, approval of Trump among black Americans has hovered around 1 in 10 over the course of his presidency, with 8% approving in June.
As Trump spoke in Virginia, where in 1619 the first enslaved Africans arrived in English North America, a congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the Door of No Return in Ghana, the departure point for millions of Africans bound for the Americas and sold into slavery.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass of California, a member of the Ghana delegation who was aware of Trump’s recent social media activity and his trip to Jamestown, said in a statement Tuesday: “Twenty years ago, when I went to the Door of No Return for the first time, I never thought I’d return as a member of Congress or as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. But I also never thought that I’d return as the President of the United States continues a racist assault on an African American member of Congress and our country.”
The boycott by Virginia lawmakers followed days of acerbic commentary by Trump, beginning Saturday, that referred to Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” that no human being would want to live in. Cummings is chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which has spent the year investigating the president and the administration.
In his speech, Trump offered a nod to the beginning of slavery in the U.S. by noting the arrival of the slaves in 1619 at Point Comfort, Virginia.
“We remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage,” he said.
Trump’s speech was briefly interrupted by a Muslim state lawmaker, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, a Democrat, who stood holding laminated signs that said “Deport Hate,” ”Reunite My Family” and “Go Back to Your Corrupted Home.” Samirah later told The Associated Press that he wanted to protest Trump’s policies and rhetoric.
Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, who had introduced Trump, said Samirah’s protest was “inconsistent with common decency and a violation of the rules of the House.”
Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Del. Lamont Bagby told AP that the group of about 20 lawmakers had reached a unanimous decision to boycott the event more than a week ago, before Trump began to assail Cummings. Not every black Virginia elected official stayed away from Trump’s appearance. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was on hand as Trump became the first president to address the Virginia Legislature.
Trump used the speech to make an optimistic case for America’s future, saying, “America always gets the job done.”
“That is why after 400 years of glorious American democracy, we have returned here to this place to declare to all the world that the United States of America and the great Commonwealth of Virginia are just getting started,” he said.
At a ceremony earlier Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam — a Democrat whose political career was almost destroyed this year by a blackface scandal — reflected on the complexities of the 1619 milestones. He noted that while the ideals of freedom and representative government flourished in Jamestown four centuries ago, enslaved Africans would arrive just weeks later.
“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.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington, Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia, and Errin Haines Whack in Philadelphia contributed to this report.