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White House praises John Lewis' legacy as Trump comments after golf club visit

Presidents typically function as a healer and unifier in a time of national mourning. Other Republican leaders were quick to offer their condolences for Lewis, who died Friday night, Trump waited until Saturday afternoon.
Image: John Lewis
Rep. John Lewis waits in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to enter memorial services for Rep. Elijah Cummings on Oct. 24, 2019.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — As lawmakers from both parties offered their condolences and reflected on the life and legacy of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who died Friday night, the White House stayed silent, waiting until Saturday morning to acknowledge the death of the civil rights icon.

"Rep. John Lewis was an icon of the civil rights movement, and he leaves an enduring legacy that will never be forgotten. We hold his family in our prayers, as we remember Rep. John Lewis’ incredible contributions to our country," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted Saturday morning.

President Donald Trump arrived at his Sterling, Virginia, golf club around 9:15 a.m. E.T., just minutes before McEnany tweeted about Lewis. Trump, who shared dozens of tweets and retweets about his Democratic opponents Friday night, did not personally acknowledge Lewis' death until shortly after 2 p.m., about a half hour before returning to the White House.

"Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing, Trump said in a tweet. "Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family."

The White House also announced late Saturday morning that flags would be lowered to half-staff for the remainder of the day in honor of Lewis.

Vice President Mike Pence offered his own statement Saturday, writing that while "John Lewis will be rightly remembered as an icon of the civil rights movement, for me he was also a colleague and a friend."

"Even when we differed, John was always unfailingly kind and my family and I will never forget the privilege of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge at his side on the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday," Pence said.

Lewis viewed Trump as a threat to democracy. He boycotted Trump's 2017 inauguration after telling NBC News that he did not view Trump as a "legitimate president" due to evidence of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

Trump was criticized for tweeting racist insults in response to Lewis' comments, writing at the time that the Georgia lawmaker "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!"

Some encouraged Trump to "please say nothing" about Lewis' death.

"Please don’t comment on the life of Congressman Lewis. Your press secretary released a statement, leave it at that," Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Lewis was a member, tweeted Saturday. "Please let us mourn in peace."

Other Republican lawmakers, many of whom did not always see eye to eye with Lewis, honored the congressman Friday night as news of his death broke.

"Laura and I join our fellow Americans in mourning the loss of Congressman John Lewis," President George W. Bush said in a statement Friday. "America can best honor John's memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all."

Lewis also skipped Bush's inauguration in 2001 in protest of the controversial election results in Florida that resulted in Bush's victory.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also shared a statement late Friday night calling Lewis an "American hero."

“You did not need to agree with John on many policy details to be awed by his life, admire his dedication to his neighbors in Georgia’s Fifth District, or appreciate his generous, respectful, and friendly bearing," McConnell said. “Our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it."

Lewis, a sharecroppers' son who became a giant of the civil rights movement, died Friday after a monthslong battle with cancer, his family said. He was 80.

The longtime Georgia congressman, an advocate of nonviolent protest who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, was the last surviving speaker from 1963's March on Washington.