US President Donald Trump has stepped up his feud with an influential black lawmaker who is leading several investigations into the president, branding him a "racist" over the "rodent-infested mess" in his district.
Mr Trump lashed out in tweets against Representative Elijah Cummings, the powerful House Oversight Committee chairman, claiming his Baltimore-area district is “considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States”.
The president insisted that his comments on Saturday referring to Cummings' majority-black district as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess”, where "no human being would want to live" were not racist.
Mr Trump argued: "If racist Elijah Cummings would focus more of his energy on helping the good people of his district, and Baltimore itself, perhaps progress could be made in fixing the mess that he has helped to create over many years of incompetent leadership."
"His radical “oversight” is a joke!," he added.
Mr Trump even retweeted far-right commentator, Katie Hopkins, in which she described Baltimore as a "violent place" and a "proper s***hole".
It was the president’s latest assault on a prominent politician, and the people he represents,two weeks after he sparked nationwide controversy with tweets directed at four congresswomen.
His comments against Mr Cummings, who leads multiple investigations of the president’s governmental dealings, drew swift condemnation from Democrats, including would-be presidential rivals.
White House aides sought to downplay Mr Trump's comments as frustration over Democrats' unrelenting investigations and talk of impeachment.
Aides said the president swung hard at Mr Cummings and his Baltimore district because he believes such Capitol Hill critics are neglecting serious problems back home in their zeal to undermine his presidency.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney insisted in two national television interviews that Mr Trump was not making racist comments.
Mr Mulvaney, a former congressman himself, said he understood why some people could perceive Trump's words as racist, but said the president's words were exaggerated for effect.
"Instead of helping people back home, they're focusing on scandal in Washington D.C., which is the exact opposite of what they said they would do when they ran for election in 2018," Mr Mulvaney said, pointing at Democrats who now control the House.
He asserted that Mr Trump's barbs were a reaction to what the president considered to be inaccurate statements by Mr Cummings about conditions in which children are being held in detention at the U.S-Mexico border.
Statements from a spokesman for the state’s Republican governor and from the lieutenant governor defended Mr Cummings’s district and its people.
Mr Trump called Mr Cummings a “brutal bully” after his public tongue-lashing of top Homeland Security officials over conditions for migrants detained along the southern border.
“As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded,” Mr Trump tweeted.
“Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Mr Cummings replied directly to Mr Trump on Twitter, saying: “Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”
Mr Cummings has also drawn the president’s ire for investigations touching on his family members serving in the White House.
On Thursday his committee voted along party lines to authorise subpoenas for personal emails and texts used for official business by top White House aides, including Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
After spending several hours on his private golf course in Virginia, Mr Trump repeated the attack on Mr Cummings, despite broad criticism from Democrats.
“Elijah Cummings spends all of his time trying to hurt innocent people through ‘Oversight,'” Mr Trump tweeted. “He does NOTHING for his very poor, very dangerous and very badly run district!”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended Mr Cummings on Saturday as “a champion in the Congress and the country for civil rights and economic justice, a beloved leader in Baltimore, and deeply valued colleague”.
She added: “We all reject racist attacks against him and support his steadfast leadership.”
Baltimore mayor Bernard C “Jack” Young fired back at Mr Trump after his attacks, saying he is a “disappointment to the people of Baltimore, our country, and to the world”.
“It’s completely unacceptable for the political leader of our country to denigrate a vibrant American City like Baltimore, and to viciously attack US Representative Elijah Cummings a patriot and a hero,” Mr Young said in a statement.
A spokesman for Maryland governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, defended the area and its residents.
In an email, Michael Ricci wrote: “Baltimore City is truly the very heart of our state, and more attacks between politicians aren’t going to get us anywhere.”
Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford, also a Republican, tweeted: “Mr. President, @realDonaldTrump, I have substantial policy differences with Congressman @RepCummings. However, I hope your criticism is not directed at the many good and hard working people who live in the district.”