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Trump Attacks Civil Rights Hero Lewis As 'All Talk' After He Questions His Legitimacy

Civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., delivers remarks in front of a freedom bell during the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration event in 2013.
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Civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., delivers remarks in front of a freedom bell during the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration event in 2013.

Updated at 8 p.m. ET

Donald Trump lashed out at civil rights hero John Lewis on Twitter Saturday morning, a day after the Georgia Democratic congressman said in an interview he didn't view the president-elect as "legitimate" amid questions of Russia's interference in the U.S. elections.

While Trump has a well-known tendency to take to social media to push back against any slight against him, such a strongly-worded rebuke of Lewis and the criticism of his majority-black district was jarring on the holiday weekend celebrating the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders and a top lieutenant of King's, helping organize the March on Washington in 1963 and marching with King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, where his skull was fractured.

Lewis said during an NBC interview on Friday that he didn't view Trump as a "legitimate president" after reports that Russia had worked to influence the election in Trump's favor and to discredit Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Trump has largely dismissed those reports and questioned the validity of U.S. intelligence findings, frequently praising Russia and its president Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign and the election.

Lewis also said he wouldn't be attending Trump's inauguration on Friday, making it the first he's missed since he was elected to Congress in 1986. "You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right," Lewis told Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. (Editor's note on Jan. 17:Lewis' communications director, Brenda Jones, has since corrected the record, noting that the congressman chose not to attend President George W. Bush's first inauguration. That "was also a form of dissent," she told CBS News.)

Lewis used Trump's attack as part of a fundraising plea from the Democratic National Committee and his own congressional campaign later on Saturday, writing in an email that, "I've been beaten bloody, tear-gassed, fighting for what's right for America. I've marched at Selma with Dr. King. Sometimes that's what it takes to move our country in the right direction. We refuse to stop now. We're not done fighting for progress. We're ready for the next four years."

Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, a frequent critic of Trump during the campaign, defended Lewis on Twitter. On Friday, he'd tweeted a message to Lewis asking him to reconsider attending the inauguration.

Trump also claimed that Lewis's Atlanta-based district was "in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)." As the Atlanta Journal Constitution notes, the district is about 58 percent black, 33 percent white and has a growing Hispanic population. It includes the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the headquarters of Coca Cola and Delta Air Lines. It also includes several top colleges such as the historically black Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with Emory University and Georgia Tech.

And while the district does have an 8.2 percent unemployment rate, higher than the national average of just below 5 percent, more than 40 percent in the district have a bachelor's degree or higher, higher than the national average.

Even amid criticism, Trump doubled down on his remarks about Lewis later Saturday evening:

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash had a curt response to that later tweet from Trump:

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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