/Elijah Cummings, powerful Democratic chairman and Trump target, dies at 68

Elijah Cummings, powerful Democratic chairman and Trump target, dies at 68

“In the House, Elijah was our North Star,” Pelosi said in a statement, later telling reporters she was “devastated” by the news. “He was a leader of towering character and integrity, whose stirring voice and steadfast values pushed the Congress and country to rise always to a higher purpose.”

Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) all delivered touching tributes to Cummings during a private caucus meeting Thursday morning as lawmakers passed around boxes of tissues, according to attendees. Pelosi, a fellow Charm City native, called Cummings her “Baltimore brother” and said he would have wanted them to move forward.

“Today we have lost a giant. Elijah Cummings was a public servant to his core,” said Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress and Cummings’ dear friend.

“In a time of confrontation and disagreement and anger and, yes, sometimes hate, he was a beacon of civility, of fairness, of justice,” Hoyer added in floor remarks after the meeting.

Cummings was the top Democrat on the GOP-led Benghazi Committee, pushing back on the controversial probe that dogged Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. As Oversight Committee chairman, he convened one of the most explosive hearings in this Congress — bringing Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to Capitol Hill to testify against his old boss.

Cummings also led an investigation into politicization of the U.S. Census that kept pressure on the Trump administration to ultimately withdraw plans for a citizenship question on the 2020 questionnaire.

Most recently, Cummings helped spearhead the Democratic impeachment probe, and was an active participant even when he was working the phones remotely as recently as last week. Though initially resistant to impeachment, Cummings embraced it last month as the scandal over Trump’s handling of matters connected to Ukraine unfolded.

“When the history books are written about this tumultuous era, I want them to show that I was among those in the House of Representatives who stood up to lawlessness and tyranny,” he said in a Sept. 24 statement.

Over the summer, Trump targeted Cummings in a string of explosive tweets and public statements condemned by congressional Democrats as racist. The president denigrated the African American lawmaker online as “a brutal bully,” and characterized his predominantly black, Baltimore-based congressional district as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” would want to live.

Cummings responded in an address at the National Press Club by inviting the president to visit his Baltimore district and encouraging all politicians, including the president, to rise above the negative discourse that has defined the Trump era.

“Those in the highest levels of the government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior. It only creates more division among us,” Cummings said in his speech in early August.

Former President Barack Obama praised Cummings as “steely yet compassionate, principled yet open to new perspectives.” “And true to the giants of progress he followed into public service, Chairman Cummings stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him the most,” Obama added in a statement.

Cummings’ roles often put him opposite some of Congress’ toughest GOP critics, including former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who ran the Benghazi panel.

But despite his central role in some of the most politically explosive investigations in recent years, Cummings was a rare figure who forged friendships and bonds across the aisle.

“His legacy is making sure there were fewer obstacles for the next Elijah Cummings,” Gowdy said in a lengthy tribute to Cummings on Twitter. “His legacy to me, above all else, was his faith. A faith in God that is being rewarded today with no more fights, no more battles, and no more pain.”

Most notably, Cummings had a close relationship with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a prominent Trump ally and conservative voice.

“It is a very hard morning,” Meadows said when contacted by POLITICO. “Words are not adequate to express the loss. Heartbroken.”

Cummings, for his part, at times seemed a reluctant warrior against Trump. He made early attempts to work with the White House on efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and Pelosi announced Thursday that Democrats’ drug pricing bill will be named after him.

But Cummings also did not shy away from rigorous oversight efforts scrutinizing Trump’s executive branch and top aides. He subpoenaed counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway for her alleged violations of the Hatch Act, which she ignored despite contempt threats, and pressed the White House for details on officials’ use of private email for government business, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Cummings was the beloved son of Baltimore, born in the city on Jan. 18, 1951, and could often be seen walking the streets of the inner-city district, an area where he lived in the same house for more than three decades.

It was Cummings who tried to hold the ailing city together as it was on the verge of ripping apart in 2015 over the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in police custody. Cummings took to the street, bullhorn in his hand, marching with other Baltimore residents and urging them to remain calm during protests.

“Congressman Cummings was an honorable man who proudly served his district and the nation with dignity, integrity, compassion and humility,” Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, his wife and chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said in a statement.

“He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation’s diversity was our promise, not our problem.”

Cummings, one of seven children, was the son of South Carolinian sharecroppers who moved to Baltimore and became Pentecostal ministers. Cummings often said his parents instilled in him the value of an education to overcome the hurdles that he would come across as a young black man growing up in the Civil Rights era.

“If you miss one day of school, that meant you died the night before. And he meant that. I did not miss one second of school between kindergarten and graduating from high school. Not one second,” Cummings said in a 60 Minutes interview earlier this year.

Cummings attended Howard University, where he served as student government president and graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors. He went on to obtain a law degree from the University of Maryland.

Cummings served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 14 years and was the first African American in the state’s history to become speaker pro tempore. He came to Congress in 1996, besting several other contenders in the heavily Democratic district and handily winning reelection every term since.

Cummings had suffered health problems in recent years. He was sidelined for several months in 2017 after complications from an aortic valve replacement. Cummings was hospitalized again in early 2018 and was last seen at the Capitol in early September, although he continued to oversee Democrats’ impeachment inquiry remotely.

New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the No. 2 Democrat on the Oversight Committee, has been appointed interim chair until the caucus selects a permanent replacement.

Melanie Zanona and Quint Forgey contributed reporting to this report.

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