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Trump Decries Civil Rights Icon John Lewis as 'No Action,' Sparking Backlash

Trump's series of tweets criticizing Lewis set off a flurry of reaction on the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Image: John Lewis
Rep. John LewisNBC News

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis rankled President-elect Donald Trump when he told NBC News' "Meet the Press" in an exclusive interview on Friday that he does not believe Trump is a "legitimate president." The comment provoked Trump to lash out at the congressman, decrying him on Twitter Saturday as “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results."

Trump's series of tweets criticizing Lewis set off a flurry of reaction on the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Several Democrats rallied behind Lewis, a Freedom Rider and top organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, calling him an "American hero" and revered civil rights leader. Republicans stayed mostly silent amid the back and forth — the latest to highlight Trump's willingness to take on anyone, from war heroes to celebrities, who he believes slighted him.

But challenging Lewis, a Democrat representing Georgia, could end up pushing more members of his own party to skip Friday's presidential inauguration in protest.

Lewis said he personally didn't feel the president was legitimate after U.S. intelligence reports found that Russia was involved in cyberattacks to meddle in the November election in favor of the Republican nominee. Moscow has denied any involvement, and Trump only acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that he believes Russia interfered in the election.

Lewis, 76, told NBC News he won't attend the presidential inauguration for the first time in three decades.

His jab appeared to irk Trump, who tweeted that he "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!"

The last part didn't sit well with Democratic lawmakers, some who noted that Trump was ripping the black congressman — the son of Southern sharecroppers whose fight against segregation and as an original Freedom Rider is well-documented — on the weekend ahead of the King holiday.

Lewis was beaten during a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and had been arrested and jailed repeatedly in opposition to segregation. Since joining Congress in 1987, he's been a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi defended her colleague and said those who've tried to silence him in the past have "failed."

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., tweeted that Trump "isn't fit to polish hero (Rep. Lewis') boots," while Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., tweeted Lewis "knows true sacrifice. (Trump) has no clue."

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska supported Lewis on Twitter without directly rebuking Trump. On Friday, Sasse tweeted that Lewis should still attend the presidential inauguration — not for Trump but because it represents a "peaceful transfer of power."

Lewis' metropolitan Atlanta district covers predominantly black communities and historically black colleges, including Morehouse and Spelman. The FBI's latest crime report ranks Atlanta as No. 14 for violent crime in the nation, although overall crime in the city has been down, according to city police statistics.

Residents of Lewis' district mobilized on social media to push back against Trump's description of their communities as in "horrible shape."

The Georgia Democratic Party released a statement defending Lewis, saying "beyond these vulgar attacks, it is disheartening that Trump would rather sing the praises of Vladimir Putin than Georgia’s own living social justice legend and civil rights icon."

Georgia politician and lawyer Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, responded by calling Atlanta home to "giants of American business; innovation; and education. Cradle of Civil Rights."

House Speaker Paul Ryan did not immediately respond Saturday to a request for comment on Trump's tweet.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence also didn't wade into the controversy surrounding the remarks, but previously called Lewis a friend in a blog post about his trip to Selma in 2010 to visit historic sites of the civil rights era.

Despite the backlash, Trump kept it up. Hours after he first criticized Lewis, the president-elect shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday Tweeted: "Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!"

Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, who represents a district in Michigan, Tweeted a message aimed at Trump: "Dude, just stop."

For more of John Lewis’s interview with NBC News, tune into “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning.