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Trump deepens war of words with leftist black leaders

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US President Donald Trump has continued his attack on Democrat Elijah Cummings and his supporter Al Sharpton, both black, using race as a re-election tactic.

US President Donald Trump brushed off accusations of racism on Monday to step up his war of words with prominent black and minority left-leaning leaders, branding his latest target a "con man."

Rejecting criticism that he is stoking America's smouldering racial divisions, Mr Trump attacked African-American civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

"Al is a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score. Just doing his thing," Mr Trump tweeted, adding that Sharpton "Hates Whites & Cops!"

He struck out after Sharpton - one of the best known, if controversial, black figures in US politics - expressed support for Baltimore, a majority-black city near Washington that has also come in for a presidential bashing.

Over the weekend, Mr Trump described Baltimore as a "rat and rodent-infested mess" unfit for humans and blamed this on Elijah Cummings, the Democrat who represents much of the city in Congress.

Mr Cummings, who is black, heads the House Oversight Committee, one of the powerful bodies mounting politically sensitive probes into everything from Mr Trump's Russia connections to tax records.

Mr Sharpton told reporters in Baltimore that Mr Trump "has a particular venom for blacks and people of colour."

"He can say what he wants. Call me a troublemaker. Yes, I make trouble for bigots," Mr Sharpton said.

Mr Trump did not hold back, either.

"So tired of listening to the same old Bull...," he wrote, spicing up his tweet with an abbreviated profanity.

"Next, Reverend Al will show up to complain & protest. Nothing will get done for the people in need."

The Republican president earlier in July attacked four racial and ethnic minority Democratic congresswomen in remarks that Democrats and a number of Republicans also called racist.

On Monday, Mr Trump again slammed Mr Cummings and his majority-black congressional district in Baltimore over its high crime rate.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young on Monday said Mr Trump should take action to help US cities.

Mr Sharpton and Mr Trump have ties going back to their New York City circles, but Mr Trump baulked at any close past relationship.

"Just a conman at work!" Mr Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Mr Sharpton called the attacks "a sideshow", adding that Mr Trump, a former reality television personality and real estate developer, has constantly shifted his stance on race.

"This is Trump getting ready for re-election," Mr Sharpton told MSNBC's Morning Joe program on Monday.

"He will do anything, including to his own supporters if it is to his advantage."

Mr Trump made clear his tweets targeting Mr Cummings as well as the four female lawmakers known as the "squad" - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan - were tied to his efforts to beat Democrats and maintain the White House in the November 2020 presidential election.

"If the Democrats are going to defend the Radical Left 'Squad' and King Elijah's Baltimore Fail, it will be a long road to 2020," Mr Trump wrote on Monday.

Like in his 2016 campaign, Mr Trump has made race front and centre while Democrats also grapple with the issue as they seek to select a 2020 presidential nominee from a nearly two dozen candidates, including several racial minorities and women.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who had considered challenging Mr Trump for the party's nomination next year, is expected to address Mr Trump's attacks later on Monday, the Washington Post reported.

Mr Trump's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on Sunday defended the president, saying the tweets against Mr  Cummings were not racist.

Critics have said Mr Trump's attacks show how disconnected he is from serving as a leader of all of America, including its more racially diverse and politically liberal-leaning urban areas.

"He continues to say things about American cities all across this country," Ms Tlaib said on Sunday on CNN's State of the Union program. "I mean, look, our president has a hate agenda. He doesn't have a policy agenda."

Loyal pastors

Mr Trump said earlier this month that he doesn't have "a racist bone in my body."

He routinely touts statistics showing low unemployment in the African-American community, as well as a program designed to encourage investment in forgotten inner-city neighbourhoods.

On Monday he boosted that narrative by meeting at the White House with black pastors.

"The president is concerned about the whole nation, about everybody in the nation," said Alveda King, a niece of the slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King.

Bill Owens, a pastor who said that about 20 people attended the previously unannounced, closed-door meeting with Trump, told reporters it was "hard to believe" that Mr Trump is racist.

Combative election campaign

The Baltimore feud comes less than two weeks after the House of Representatives - in a rare vote - condemned the president for "racist" comments targeting four first-term Democratic congresswomen nicknamed the "Squad."

All of them are from ethnic minorities.

"Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came," Mr Trump asked about the women, only one of whom, Ilhan Omar, was born abroad, arriving two decades ago as a refugee from Somalia.

The "go back" statement ignited the backlash from critics painting Mr Trump as an open racist.

But each of the provocative statements, including the assault on Baltimore appears to boost a planned push to raise political temperatures ahead of the 2020 presidential election where Mr Trump wants to frame Democratic opponents as the real extremists - on the left.

"If the Democrats are going to defend the Radical Left 'Squad' and King Elijah's Baltimore Fail, it will be a long road to 2020," Mr Trump tweeted Monday.

Cory Booker, an African-American running for the Democratic nomination, called the growing row "painful."

"This is a moral, defining moment in America," he said.

Kamala Harris, another candidate who is also black, said she was "proud" to have her campaign headquarters in Mr Cummings' district and called Mr Trump's attack 

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