The paper of the city that President Donald Trump attacked didn’t mince words.
“Better to have a few rats than to be one,” the Baltimore Sun’s editorial declared in its headline.
On Saturday evening, the editorial board of a paper that has been a city fixture since 1837 joined the wave of Maryland residents and leaders condemning Trump’s tweets calling Rep. Elijah Cummings’s district a “rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human” would want to live. The scathing piece, which drew responses across the world and which the Sun expects will help break records in readership and subscriptions, highlights Baltimore’s strengths and accuses Trump of deploying “the most emotional and bigoted of arguments” against a Democratic African American congressman from a majority-black district.
“We regularly mock some of the things [Trump] does, but I think to call the president of the United States a rat or a vermin ... that’s a new place to go,” Sun editorial writer Peter Jensen, who rushed to the office on his day off to write the piece, told The Washington Post. “But my gut instinct as I was writing the editorial was that that was the inescapable conclusion.”
The editorial links Trump’s criticism of Cummings and Maryland’s 7th District to a divisive political strategy. It noted Cummings’s condemnations of Trump’s border policies and the congressman’s leadership role in investigations into the administration as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — as well as his labeling of Trump as racist for his tweets telling a group of minority Democratic congresswomen to go back to the “crime infested” places from where they came.
“The congressman has been a thorn in this president’s side, and Mr. Trump sees attacking African American members of Congress as good politics, as it both warms the cockles of the white supremacists who love him and causes so many of the thoughtful people who don’t to scream,” the Sun’s editorial board wrote.
The Sun went on to point out aspects of the 7th District that Trump had neglected to mention: the above-average median income, the presence of both the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Social Security Administration, which helps the retired and disabled, and the “proud history” of Fort McHenry, where American troops beat back the British in the War of 1812.
The editorial board also had a message for Trump: The 7th District is his responsibility, too. The president has more power to change the city than any one member of Congress, it said.
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But the paper saved perhaps its strongest language for the piece’s ending, turning to Trump’s own record.
The editorial board “would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post,” the Sun said.
The editorial ends with a reprisal of its headline, saying it’s better to have “vermin” in your neighborhood “than to be one.”
The passionate local defense of Baltimore and indictment of the president resonated widely, as lawmakers such as Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted the piece.
The Sun’s editorial reached across continents, too. Washington Post West Africa bureau chief Danielle Paquette tweeted Sunday that she overheard people at an NBA camp in Senegal discussing the piece. A woman from the capital, Dakar, said she woke her husband up to tell him to read it.
Jensen, 59, who took the lead on the piece while consulting with the rest of the Sun’s editorial board, saw Paquette’s post and was “just blown away” that the piece was being noticed so far away. He read the tweet to his wife.
“Sometimes we work in this business, you put your heart into some work and you don’t hear much,” he told The Post. “And sometimes you do.”
He fielded media inquiries Sunday, appearing on NBC and CBS radio. It felt wonderful, he said, to know he’d struck a chord.
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Jensen said he was shocked to read Trump’s tweets Saturday morning, even as someone often dismayed by the president’s words. He texted editorial board members asking if they thought the Sun should weigh in. They agreed: they should respond.
Driving to the Sun’s offices from his home in Baltimore’s suburbs that afternoon — Jensen had left his laptop at work — the writer mulled the proper tone to take toward a president whose norm-breaking behavior has pushed him to call out a U.S. president in ways he said he would never have expected. He wondered, would responding in outrage just play into the president’s hands?
Jensen’s first headline was less blunt, along the lines of “better to have rats than bigotry.” But by the time he finished writing, even that criticism didn’t feel strong enough. The people Trump insults often have “no voice,” he said, and he felt an obligation to speak out on their behalf.
The attention drove record traffic to the Sun’s site over the weekend. Sun spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik told The Post Sunday that web traffic and new subscribers to baltimoresun.com were double what’s typical on a Saturday. And subscription orders are on track to hit quadruple of what the paper receives on a normal Sunday.
As backlash to Trump’s comments on Cummings and Baltimore mounted and as #WeAreBaltimore trended on Twitter, the president dug in. He continued to tweet critically of the 7th District on Saturday and Sunday morning, when a new volley of posts said Cummings had failed to address the city’s crime for decades and accused Democrats of playing the “Race Card” while failing to help African Americans.
But the president retweeted defenses of his comments as having “nothing to do with race.”
By Sunday morning, Trump had turned his sights to the district of another political foe: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who on Saturday had tweeted that she and others reject “racist attacks” on Cummings.
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The Washington Post’s Danielle Paquette in Senegal contributed to this report.