Lewis vs. Trump: Antagonists until the end

During six decades in public life, John Lewis made peace with some of the most notorious opponents of the civil rights movement, such as former Alabama Gov.George Wallace, but in 2017, he drew a line between himself and the country’s most powerful man.

It was never erased.

Lewis, a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton, was deeply distressed by the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

“I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in January 2017, 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.”

Lewis’ actions catapulted him to front lines of his party’s resistance to the unconventional commander-in-chief and lifted his profile among a newly-politicized generation of young people. But it also cost him credibility among some Republicans, and Trump struck back even before he was sworn in.

He tweeted that 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.

President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he stops at the exhibit for Dr. Ben Carson, his nominee for Housing and Urban Development secretary, during a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Credit: Evan Vucci

icon to expand image

Credit: Evan Vucci

Trump’s comments cast Lewis as a villain in the eyes of some of Trump’s supporters, and Republican officials in Georgia largely declined to publicly defend the long-time congressman.

One GOP state senator even said Lewis’ remarks about Trump being illegitimate were “petty” and set a dangerous precedent.

“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, which inspired many junior Democrats to do the same. He skipped Trump’s State of the Union addresses, and Lewis cancelled his appearance at the ribbon cutting of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Miss., 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.

Though deeply critical of Trump’s biggest policy proposals, Lewis was slow to embrace the push from some Democratic colleagues to launch an impeachment inquiry in early 2019.

For months, Lewis — who had stood with Bill Clinton on the South Lawn of the White House in 1998 after the then-president was impeached by the Republican-led House — was cagey about his stance on Trump. That changed in September 2019 after Trump admitted to pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.

Lewis stepped into the well of the House and declared in a thundering speech that 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.

The president acknowledged Lewis’ death on his Twitter account Saturday afternoon.

“Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” he wrote.

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. But critics blasted the move since the proclamation was set to expire at the end of the day.

Though Lewis and Trump never reconciled, the president did quietly help the Democrat achieve one of his most sought-after legislative priorities in 2018. He signed a bill creating Georgia’s first national historic park at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Trump was not the only president whose legitimacy Lewis questioned.

Lewis 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, and 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, Ala., 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 Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a project Lewis spent decades promoting and Bush approved while in office.