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Trump deepens war of words with leftist black leaders

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US President Donald Trump brushed off accusations of racism Monday to step up his war of words with prominent black and minority left-leaning leaders, branding his latest target a "con man."

[WASHINGTON] US President Donald Trump brushed off accusations of racism Monday to step up his war of words with prominent black and minority left-leaning leaders, branding his latest target a "con man."

Rejecting criticism that he is stoking America's smouldering racial divisions, Trump attacked African-American civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

"Al is a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score. Just doing his thing," Mr Trump tweeted, adding that Sharpton "Hates Whites & Cops!"

He struck out after Mr Sharpton - one of the best known, if controversial, black figures in US politics - expressed support for Baltimore, a majority black city near Washington that has also come in for a presidential bashing.

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Over the weekend, Mr Trump described Baltimore as a "rat and rodent infested mess" unfit for humans and blamed this on Elijah Cummings, the Democrat who represents much of the city in Congress.

Mr Cummings, who is black, heads the House Oversight committee, one of the powerful bodies mounting politically sensitive probes into everything from Mr Trump's Russia connections to tax records.

Mr Sharpton told reporters in Baltimore that Trump "has a particular venom for blacks and people of colour."

"He can say what he wants. Call me a troublemaker. Yes, I make trouble for bigots," Mr Sharpton said.

Mr Trump did not hold back, either.

"So tired of listening to the same old Bull...," he wrote, spicing up his tweet with an abbreviated profanity.

"Next, Reverend Al will show up to complain & protest. Nothing will get done for the people in need."

LOYAL PASTORS 

Mr Trump said earlier this month that he doesn't have "a racist bone in my body."

He routinely touts statistics showing low unemployment in the African-American community, as well as a program designed to encourage investment in forgotten inner city neighborhoods.

On Monday he boosted that narrative by meeting at the White House with black pastors.

"The president is concerned about the whole nation, about everybody in the nation," said Alveda King, a niece of the slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King.

Bill Owens, a pastor who said that about 20 people attended the previously unannounced, closed-door meeting with Mr Trump, told reporters it was "hard to believe" that Mr Trump is racist.

COMBATIVE ELECTION CAMPAIGN 

The Baltimore feud comes less than two weeks after the House of Representatives - in a rare vote - condemned the president for "racist" comments targeting four first-term Democratic congresswomen nicknamed the "Squad." All of them are from ethnic minorities.

"Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," Mr Trump asked about the women, only one of whom, Ilhan Omar, was born abroad, arriving two decades ago as a refugee from Somalia.

The "go back" statement ignited a backlash from critics painting Mr Trump as an open racist.

But each of the provocative statements, including the assault on Baltimore, appears to boost a planned push to raise political temperatures ahead of the 2020 presidential election where Mr Trump wants to frame Democratic opponents as the real extremists - on the left.

"If the Democrats are going to defend the Radical Left 'Squad' and King Elijah's Baltimore Fail, it will be a long road to 2020," Mr Trump tweeted on Monday.

Cory Booker, an African-American running for the Democratic nomination, called the growing row "painful."

"This is a moral, defining moment in America," he said.

Kamala Harris, another candidate who is also black, said she was "proud" to have her campaign headquarters in Cummings' district and called Mr Trump's attack "disgraceful."

AFP