Around midnight Friday, President Donald Trump attacked the intelligence of basketball titan LeBron James, tweeting that an interviewer “made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.” The comment came ahead of an important special election for a House seat in James’ home state, and could add a meaningful obstacle to Republican efforts to retain control of Congress.
Trump’s offhand Twitter dig came in response to an interview between James and CNN’s Don Lemon, which focused on an ambitious new public school James has founded in Akron. The school is aimed at providing comprehensive services for at-risk youth, and James is providing $8 million in funding for it through his LeBron James Family Foundation.
James is arguably the most revered athlete in America, and has been widely praised for his intellect and leadership. He has also been frequently critical of the president. In June, James said of Trump that “it’s a lot of things that we believe in as Americans that we don’t feel that he’s for . . . There’s a lot of people that believe that he’s not for the people or doing right by the people.”
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While Trump insulting his critics is nothing new, this instance is particularly notable for its bizarre timing. As Trump himself announced just hours later, he will be campaigning Saturday night on behalf of Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate in a closely-fought special election for the House seat representing Ohio’s 12th Congressional district.
James, who has spent most of his career playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a titan in his home state, and it’s hard to imagine a gesture more likely to alienate voters there than insulting him. The fairly conservative and suburban 12th district voted for Trump by a roughly 10% margin, but there is substantial evidence that Democratic candidate Danny O’Connor is already eroding Balderson’s built-in advantage.
A loss in the Ohio election would advance Democrats’ push to retake control of the House of Representatives, which would require taking 24 seats away from Republicans. Many consider the 12th district vote an important belwether of results in November’s nationwide elections. With the vote happening Tues., August 7, the James insult is sure to be fresh on voters’ minds.
Additionally, Trump’s insult has highlighted a number of comparisons between Trump’s and James’ accomplishments and behavior, many of which do not redound to Trump’s benefit — most obviously, James’ new school and Trump University.
Early this year, a federal court approved a $25 million settlement for former students of Trump University, who claimed the school was a bait-and-switch operation that did not offer the real estate industry insights it promised. One of Trump’s own employees has described Trump University as “a fraudulent scheme.”
Responses to the President’s comments have been harsh and swift, crossing party lines. Joe Walsh, a talk show host and former Republican Congressman, said Trump’s comment revealed “what a small man he is.”
Others have pointed out that Trump’s tweet, by comparing James to “Mike” — that is, Michael Jordan — had racial overtones.
Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather called the comment “racist” and “the product of petty but dangerous hatreds.”