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Washington – President Donald Trump on Thursday is making his first visit to Baltimore since describing it nearly two months ago as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”

As he left the White House to head to Baltimore, Trump was asked what his message would be to the residents of the city he disparaged. The president dodged the question and talked about how the GOP won two seats in the House during elections this week.

“I think it’s going to be a very successful evening,” he told reporters on the South Lawn.

Trump will be speaking to congressional Republicans attending an annual retreat in a hotel on the city’s waterfront. Protesters have gathered nearby. But inside, the president will find a friendly audience of legislators whose political futures are closely tied to how well he performs in next year’s election. Trump’s speech was to focus on his accomplishments in office and priorities ahead.

In July, Trump lashed at the city in a series of tweets critical of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents the majority-black 7th Congressional District in Baltimore and also chairs the House oversight panel conducting numerous investigations of the administration’s policies and work.

Police blocked off a wide perimeter around the hotel. But a few blocks away, demonstrators inflated a giant rat carrying a cell phone and adorned with yellow hair and a red tie to make clear their mocking intentions. Protesters waved signs with messages like “Trump and the GOP are the real rats,” and “Welcome rat king.”

Asked whether the president should apologize for his Baltimore comments, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that Trump “made a very good case why many major cities have challenges.” He said the president’s trip “symbolizes that, yes, he cares about Baltimore,” adding that Trump is working to give people in poverty “a better opportunity.”

Jennifer Amann, who lives in Fells Point not far from the hotel where Trump was speaking, laughed when told that McCarthy said Trump’s visit demonstrates that he cares about the city and its residents.

“We don’t need visits, we need policies that help the people,” Amann, who moved to Baltimore 16 years ago, said of Trump and Republican lawmakers. “The proof’s in the pudding and they don’t do anything to support this city.”

She said Trump’s comments were “closely tied to is racism, which is why he picks on cities like Baltimore and other places where people are living a lifestyle, and living the American dream, in a way he doesn’t think is appropriate.”

On an adjacent corner, a smaller yet vocal group of Trump supporters gathered, and the two groups engaged in an extended back and forth.

Joe Murphy, of Owings Mills, Maryland, called the Trump protesters “so un-American and disgusting.” He said Trump was not a racist.

“He’s here today to talk about opportunity zones, where he’s going to clean up the most disgusting parts of this city – and I’ve lived here all my life and there are a lot of disgusting parts,” he said. “What do you guys have against that?”

The GOP retreat was scheduled for Baltimore before Trump got into his spat with Cummings.

After Trump’s verbal broadsides, Cummings invited the president to tour his congressional district with him, from the poorest parts of Baltimore to more well-to-do areas outside the city in suburban Baltimore and Howard counties.

Trump has not backed away from his charges that Democratic leaders are responsible for the ills of America’s biggest cities. But for now, he’s making the argument in a less personal and less hostile manner. He’s also trying to win over blacks and Hispanics by citing employment gains they have made during his tenure. It’s a staple of most of his speeches.

The unemployment rate for black Americans fell sharply to 5.5% in August, hitting its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1972. But the drop was driven primarily by a negative development: Fewer African Americans were either working or seeking jobs. The unemployment rate for Americans of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity stood at 4.2%.

Baltimore, a once-gilded American seaport, has undeniable drug and violent crime challenges. The city saw more than 300 homicides in 2018 for the fourth year in a row. It also contends with deep-rooted poverty and swaths of the city are populated with vacant, boarded-up homes.

Associated Press Mathew Daly in Washington and Regina Garcia Cano in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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