Pence defends Trump in spat with US civil rights icon

Washington (AFP) - A feud between Donald Trump and a prominent civil rights icon ramped up Sunday, as Vice President-elect Mike Pence jumped to his boss's defense while a growing number of Democrats vowed to skip the upcoming inauguration.

Pence said he was "deeply disappointed" in veteran Congressman John Lewis's decision to boycott Trump's inauguration.

The Georgia Democrat questioned the legitimacy of the 2016 election and became the highest-profile lawmaker among nearly two dozen members of the House of Representatives to pass on Friday's ceremony.

"I was deeply disappointed to see someone of his stature question the legitimacy of Donald Trump's election as president and say he's not attending the inauguration," Pence said on Fox News Sunday. "I hope he reconsiders both positions."

Lewis' declaration Friday moved the notoriously thin-skinned Trump to launch a Twitter blast at the lawmaker and the majority-black district he represents, a move that drew widespread criticism just ahead of the US holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

In an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," excerpts of which were released Friday and were airing in full on Sunday, Lewis, 76, said he does not "see this president-elect as a legitimate president."

"I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton," he said before vowing to skip the inauguration for the first time in his three decades in Congress.

"You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong."

Trump fired back, tweeting that "Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results."

"All talk, talk, talk -- no action or results. Sad!"

- 'Twitter addiction' -

Senators have launched a bipartisan investigation into Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential race, after a report from the Director of National Intelligence said hackers working for Russia penetrated Democratic Party computers and accounts aiming to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton's electability.

Pence asserted that Trump "has the right to defend himself" in light of Lewis's comments.

"I believe the inauguration ceremony itself and this moment in history would greatly benefit if we set aside these baseless assertions about the legitimacy of the election and we looked for ways to come together," the vice president-elect said later on CBS's Face the Nation.

The growing list of Democratic members of the House skipping the inauguration -- Lewis being the most prominent -- included Maxine Waters of California, who said she never planned to participate in any of the festivities.

"I wouldn't waste my time," she said on Twitter.

Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin slammed Trump in a statement announcing his decision to skip the inauguration.

After "this weekend's offensive tweets about a national hero Rep. John Lewis, I am no longer attending the event," he said in the statement posted on Twitter, also citing reports alleging Russian interference in the presidential election as a reason for not going.

"At minimum, it's time for Donald Trump to start acting like President Trump, not an immature, undignified reality star with questionable friends and a Twitter addiction."

Known for his decades of work in the civil rights movement, Lewis marched with King at the August 1963 rally in Washington at which King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis also took part in the Freedom Rides -- challenges to segregated facilities at bus terminals in the South.

And he led a landmark march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 that prompted state troopers to attack the protesters during what later became known as "Bloody Sunday."