Government & Politics

After fight over Trump tweets, Cleaver struggles with civility in ‘post-truth era’

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver suffered a bout of vertigo after Tuesday’s raucous House session that culminated in the Missouri Democrat abandoning his chair while presiding over the chamber.

His dropping of the gavel in disgust—the most dramatic moment in the debate on a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s tweets attacking four congresswomen as racist—came after Republicans invoked an obscure rule that prevents lawmakers from directly calling the president racist.

That night, Cleaver, who has episodes of the inner ear condition that can affect balance, returned to his Washington, D.C., apartment and became ill.

“The latest thing in my chart is presiding over the House of Representatives,” said Cleaver, who explained that his doctor keeps a record of activities leading to each flare up.

While Cleaver isn’t claiming that the House debate triggered his symptoms, he does suggest that they underscore the problems ailing Washington, which include the increasing lack of civility.

“I know that the majority of people on both sides would like to have a level of civility to get things done for the public. The president is making it increasingly difficult,” Cleaver said. “In a post-truth era, it’s difficult for us to deal with issues like civility.”

Ironically, Cleaver is the long-time chairman of the House Civility Caucus.

He missed a meeting on civility reforms to preside over the chamber, at the request of House leaders, because of his ability to keep a cool head in tense moments.

“Both sides would say Cleaver’s not going to try to strong-arm us,” he said.

Cleaver said Republicans and Democrats both broke House rules throughout the debate, which he let slide because of the emotional nature of the issue. But he lost his patience when Republicans invoked an obscure rule to punish House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

Since the 1800s the House has relied on Thomas Jefferson’s Manual as its standard of rules. The manual contains a rule that restricts attacks on the president’s character and annotated versions say that means a speaker can’t refer to the president as having made bigoted or racist remarks.

Democrats are considering ditching the rule in the aftermath of the episode, Cleaver said.

“Even the segregationists would know that was racist,” Cleaver, the first African American to serve as Kansas City mayor, said of Trump’s tweets.

Cleaver said the the rule hampers efforts to hold the president accountable and can easily be changed by a majority vote.

He refused to read the parliamentarian’s ruling that the speaker had violated the rule and said that he thinks the decision to invoke it against Pelosi in the final minutes of the debate was pre-meditated.

“Just about every person who spoke violated the House rules,” said Cleaver, who contended that members of both parties told him he did the right thing.

Trump’s tweets followed days of nasty in-fighting among Democrats, which also frustrates the eight-term Missouri congressman.

Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat close to Cleaver, was pulled into the fray this weekend when the House Democratic Caucus’ official Twitter account criticized Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff for a tweet attacking Davids.

Cleaver said he texted Davids encouraging her to say nothing about the controversy, a decision she had already reached on her own.

“She was pulled in simply because she has been a practitioner of civility and that was her sin,” Cleaver said. “There’s no reason for her to get attacked but for the fact that she’s a model member.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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