President Trump faced renewed accusations of racism Saturday after mocking the intelligence of Lakers superstar LeBron James and broadcaster Don Lemon of CNN.
Trump took to Twitter late Friday night to bash Lemon after his interview on Monday with James and ended up slandering the celebrity athlete as well. In the interview, James reiterated his criticism of the president as racially insensitive.
“Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!” Trump tweeted, apparently referencing former NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
Trump’s criticism of the intelligence of James and Lemon, who are both black, comes after he has repeatedly referred to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), one of the most prominent African American members of Congress and a vocal Trump critic, as being “an extraordinarily low IQ person.” The president’s attack on Waters has become a staple of his political rallies, as it was Saturday night in Lewis Center, in central Ohio north of Columbus, where he called her “a seriously low IQ person" to the usual cheers.
During his campaign and presidency, Trump frequently has used racially charged language, particularly in talking about Latino immigrants. He faced his strongest backlash nearly a year ago for failing to immediately condemn the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., during a march by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, many of them armed, and for equating them with anti-racism protesters who turned out.
Trump also has been outspoken in slamming black NFL players for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem as a protest of police brutality and racial injustice. His frequent comments on that topic have led some professional sports teams, such as the Golden State Warriors, to decline the traditional congratulatory White House visit after winning a championship.
Lemon made that connection in responding to Trump’s attack, asking in his own tweet Saturday morning, “Who’s the real dummy? A man who puts kids in classrooms or one who puts kids in cages?”
Lemon, who did not address the president’s attack against himself, was referring to the Trump administration’s controversial ”zero tolerance” policy of separating as many as 3,000 immigrant children from their parents as they crossed the southern border. Some of the children were held in large cage-like structures. Under pressure, and a federal court order, Trump rescinded the policy but hundreds of families remain apart.
Many other critics directly or indirectly accused Trump of racism.
Max Boot, a foreign policy analyst at the Council of Foreign Relations, tweeted that he was “sure it’s just a coincidence that Trump thinks African-Americans are dumb.”
Journalist Dan Rather was more direct, calling Trump’s tweet “racist.”
James had not yet publicly responded to Trump’s tweet early Saturday.
Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ chief executive and controlling owner, said the Lakers “could not be more proud” of James, whom they signed as a free agent last month.
“He is an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent leader and clearly appreciates the power that sports has to unite communities and inspire the world to be a better place. Those efforts should be celebrated by all,” she said.
Several prominent professional athletes came to James’ defense, including Jordan and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry.
”I support LJ,” Jordan said in a statement from his publicist. “He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”
James also received kudos from First Lady Melania Trump, who has distanced herself from her husband’s controversial behavior before. In a statement released by her spokeswoman, the first lady solicited an invitation to James’ school.
“It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the first lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” said the spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham. “Her platform centers around visiting organizations, hospitals and schools, and she would be open to visiting the I Promise School in Akron.”
James has called Trump a “bum” on Twitter and campaigned for his Democratic opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton.
In the CNN interview, James said he called Trump a bum because “he kinda used sports to kinda divide us. And that’s something that I can’t relate to because I know that sports was the first time I was around someone white.”
James said he has felt a need to respond to Trump’s attacks against NFL anthem protests and decisions by athletes to skip White House visits.
"I can't sit back and say nothing," James told Lemon.
Asked what he would say to Trump if they were to sit face to face, James responded, “I would never sit across from him.”
Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, James’ home state, who is frequently at odds with Trump, also defended James. Instead of criticizing him, Kasich said on Twitter that “we should be celebrating him for his charity work and efforts to help kids.”
James remains popular in Ohio, even after departing the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer, for a second time, via free agency to join the Lakers.
James led the Cavaliers to the NBA championship in 2016, the first for the franchise and the first in any major professional sport for the city in more than 50 years.
Trump appeared in Ohio on Saturday evening at a campaign rally for Troy Balderson, a Republican state senator running in a special election Tuesday to fill a vacant House seat.
“You’re the smartest people,” he told the crowd at a high school gymnasium, after complaining about the “elites” in the country.
“They’re more elite than me? I have better everything than they have, including this,” Trump said, pointing to his head. “And I became president and they didn’t.”
Although Trump won the congressional district by 11 points in the 2016 presidential race, it is home to the sort of suburban voters — college-educated women, in particular — who have been alienated by the president’s behavior in office. Polls show Balderson is in a neck-and-neck race with Democrat Danny O’Connor.
O’Connor tweeted that he was focused on winning next week’s special election. “But I don't have to tell *anyone* what LeBron James means to Ohio,” he wrote on Twitter.