Trump: ‘I don’t know’ how history will remember John Lewis

Sculptor Gregory Johnson work on a statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay.

President Donald Trump said he never met John Lewis, doesn’t know how history will remember him, and that while Lewis devoted “a lot of energy and heart” to civil rights, “there were many others also.”

Trump made the comments at the end of a 35-minute July 28 interview with Axios that was aired Monday on HBO.

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“I don’t know John Lewis, he chose not to come to my inauguration,” Trump told Axios’ national political correspondent Jonathan Swan. “I never met John Lewis.”

Asked if he found Lewis “impressive,” Trump responded: “I find a lot of people impressive, I find a lot of people not impressive ... He didn’t come to my inauguration, he didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s OK, that’s his right. Again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.”

Lewis, whose life was celebrated during a six-day series of tributes last week, died July 17 at age 80 from pancreatic cancer.

»MORE: Lewis vs. Trump: Antagonists until the end

Before Trump’s inauguration, Lewis, who supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” suggesting Russia and others conspired to get Trump elected.

“I believe in forgiveness. I believe in trying to work with people,” Lewis said. But working with Trump, he added, is “going to be very difficult.”

Trump struck back, tweeting Lewis should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”

“All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!” Trump wrote.

»FULL COVERAGE: John Lewis

“Regardless of whether you’re on the right or the left, you ought to respect the election. That’s what I did in 2008 when (President Barack) Obama was elected,” said then-state Sen. Josh McKoon.

In the years that followed, Lewis declined to appear at any of Trump’s events. Besides skipping Trump’s State of the Union addresses, Lewis canceled his appearance at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi, after Trump decided to attend.

“I think his presence would make a mockery of everything that people tried to do to redeem the soul of America and to make this country better,” Lewis said in December 2017.

While Lewis was slow to embrace the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, he eventually delivered a speech from the floor of the U.S. House in which he said the American people “will never find the truth” unless the House begins impeachment proceedings.

“The future of our democracy is at stake,” said Lewis in the speech, in which he argued the Trump administration had demonstrated “complete disdain and disregard for ethics, for the law and for the Constitution.” Three months later, Lewis voted to impeach the president for abuse of power and obstructing Congress.

Credit: Ryon Horne

Georgia's John Lewis lies in state at the state capitol in Atlanta. The public had the opportunity to pay final tribute to Lewis.

Credit: Ryon Horne

The president acknowledged Lewis’ death on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, Trump signed a proclamation ordering flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House, military bases and U.S. embassies in honor of Lewis, a proclamation that expired at the end of the day.

»RELATED: CBS airs John Lewis prime-time special with Oprah, Tyler Perry Aug. 4

Trump helped Lewis achieve one of his most sought-after legislative priorities in 2018, signing a bill creating Georgia’s first national historic park at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com and Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Family and hometown of Troy, Ala., pay tribute to civil rights icon John Lewis at Troy University on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne / AJC)

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com and Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Lewis also boycotted President George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001 and said he didn’t believe the Texan was the “true elected president” because of the questions raised over results from Florida in the 2000 election.

Five years later, he suggested Bush could be impeached for authorizing spying on American citizens. In 2008, he voted with 250 other House lawmakers to refer 35 articles of impeachment to the House Judiciary Committee. The impeachment did not advance.

But after Bush’s presidency ended the two appeared to patch things up enough to appear at some of the same historic events. Bush and his wife Laura visited Selma, Alabama, in March 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on “Bloody Sunday.”

He was on hand a year later to celebrate the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a project Lewis spent decades promoting and Bush approved while in office. Bush was one of three former presidents who attended Lewis’ funeral last week.

The AJC’s Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.