BALTIMORE (AP) -- President Donald Trump sought to boost the spirits of Republican lawmakers, mocking Democrats and promising a new tax cut package, as he returned to the city he recently disparaged as a "rat and rodent infested mess."
Trump spoke on Thursday to House Republicans attending an annual retreat in a hotel on Baltimore's waterfront. Protesters gathered nearby. But inside, the president found a friendly audience of legislators whose political futures are closely tied to how well he performs in next year's election. They greeted him with a chant of "four more years."
Trump obliquely addressed his earlier insults against Baltimore, promising Republicans would "fight for the future of cities like Baltimore that have been destroyed by decades of failed and corrupt rule."
He said "the left-wing agenda" of regulations, crippling taxes and "unrestricted migration" has undermined law enforcement and devastated America's inner cities. "We're going to have to step in and do something about it because we can't allow that to happen to our great cities," he said.
Trump had lashed out at Baltimore in a series of July tweets critical of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents the city's majority-black 7th Congressional District. Cummings also chairs the House oversight panel conducting numerous investigations of the administration's policies and work.
On Thursday, Trump emphasized some of the biggest wins of his presidency, such as boosting military spending, slashing regulations and expanding a program that gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside the Veterans Affairs medical system. He touted the $1.5 trillion tax cut package passed in 2017 and promised to deliver another tax cut proposal next year.
"We are working on a tax cut for the middle-income people that is going to be very, very inspirational. It's going to be something that I think it's what everyone's really looking for," Trump said. "It will be a very, very substantial tax cut for middle-income folks, who work so hard."
Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation when he promised to uphold the right to keep and bear arms.
The president hasn't committed to specific gun legislation, but White House officials, lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff have held frequent meetings to discuss options aimed at curbing gun violence following shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that left more than 30 people dead over an August weekend.
The president addressed lawmakers one day after the Supreme Court cleared the way for his administration to deny nearly all asylum claims from Central Americans. He highlighted that win as well as the victories of Republicans Dan Bishop and Greg Murphy in special elections this week in North Carolina. He told the Republicans he expected them to win back the majority in the House next year.
"You're loved out there," he asserted.
Trump spoke as Democratic presidential candidates debated in Houston. The audience laughed as he mocked some of his top challengers and claimed that more people would be watching him. "They should be watching the debate but they're probably watching this," Trump said.
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 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."
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 join him on a tour of his district, from the poorest parts of Baltimore to more well-to-do areas 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.
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.