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2020 Democratic candidates denounce Trump for racism ahead of debates

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with advisors about fentanyl in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

As Democrats prepare for a second round of presidential primary debates in Detroit starting Tuesday night, one issue is dominating the political discourse: President Trump and racism.

Why it matters: Aides told Axios' Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen following Trump's "go back" tweets attacking 4 congresswomen of color that race-baiting is central to his 2020 strategy. He has since expanded targets to include Rep. Elijah Cummings, calling the majority-black Baltimore-area district he represents "a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess," and Rev. Al Sharpton.

  • Sharpton told MSNBC's "'The Rachel Maddow Show" that Trump has "decided he's going to have a race-based campaign by going after high-profile blacks."

The big picture: As TIME notes, while Democrats may want to highlight key policies at their debates, Trump’s tweets have reset the narrative. Several 2020 candidates have already called out the president for racism over the past week.

What they're saying

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted: "[Sharpton] is a champion in the fight for civil rights. The fact that President Trump continues to use the power of the presidency to unleash racist attacks on the people he serves is despicable. This hate has no place in our country. It's beneath the dignity of the office."
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren told reporters: "The president’s tweets are ugly and racist. ... Elijah Cummings is one of my dearest friends. He is a good man through and through, and he fights for what is just in this country. To be attacked by a President issuing racist tweets is beyond insulting, it is disgusting."
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: "Here's what's really going on: Rep Cummings has been busy revealing the failures of the Trump administration and exposing the greed of Trump’s friends in the pharmaceutical industry, and our racist president doesn't like it."
  • Sen. Cory Booker told CNN: "The reality is this is a guy who is worse than a racist. He's actually using racist tropes and racial language for political gain. He's trying to use this as a weapon to divide our nation against itself and this is somebody who is very similar to [segregationist] George Wallace. ... He's using the exact same language."
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg told CNN: "Look at the pattern. This is a kind of terminology that he reserves for places and situations where there are a lot of minorities involved. We can debate over how strategic it is, how intentional it is, but on its face, it is racist."
  • Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted: "I am proud our campaign headquarters is in Rep. Elijah Cummings' district. Baltimore has become home to my team and it's disgraceful the president has chosen to start his morning disparaging this great American city."

Go deeper: Trump plants racial explosives in the urban-rural divide

Editor's note: This piece has been corrected after it misattributed a portion of a quote by Sen. Cory Booker to Sen. Bernie Sanders, where Booker was comparing President Trump to George Wallace.