* Trump calls Bloomberg a ‘TOTAL RACIST’ then deletes tweet
* Bloomberg accuses Trump of dividing U.S. with hateful rhetoric
By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday accused each other of being racist, escalating a war of words between the two wealthy businessmen.
Trump fired the first volley, posting a 2015 audio clip via Twitter of Bloomberg defending his use of a controversial policing strategy from his time as New York’s mayor between 2002 and 2013 known as “stop and frisk.”
“WOW, BLOOMBERG IS A TOTAL RACIST!” Trump wrote in the since-deleted tweet.
Trump has also backed the policy.
Bloomberg, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination to challenge the Republican Trump in the Nov. 3 election, apologized for his use of the policing strategy last November a few days before announcing his candidacy.
In a statement on Tuesday, Bloomberg cited what he called his commitment to criminal justice reform and racial equity, adding: “In contrast, President Trump inherited a country marching towards greater equality and divided us with racist appeals and hateful rhetoric.”
The two men - Trump earned his fortune in real estate and Bloomberg earned his billions selling financial information - have been locked in a war of words, with Trump lobbing insults at Bloomberg in a sign of how seriously he appears to take the former mayor’s candidacy.
Bloomberg is not competing in the first four Democratic nomination contests but is mounting an expensive nationwide campaign ahead of the March primaries. He has risen in public opinion polls while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on television advertisements.
In the recording attached to Trump’s tweet, Bloomberg is heard saying that the way to keep guns out of kids’ hands is to “throw them up against the walls and frisk them.”
The stop-and-frisk policy encouraged police to stop and search pedestrians and ensnared disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos.
Bloomberg had long defended stop and frisk as an effective police tactic that saved lives, even after a federal judge in 2013 found it violated the rights of ethnic minorities.
In his statement on Tuesday, Bloomberg said: “I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on black and Latino communities.”
Trump backed stop-and-frisk before and after he became president in 2017. In October 2018, then-President Trump called on Chicago to implement stop-and-frisk to fight crime. “It works, and it was meant for problems like Chicago,” he said at the time.
A spokesman for Trump’s election campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the president’s support for stop-and-frisk and why Trump deleted the tweet. The White House declined comment on why Trump deleted the tweet.
But in an emailed statement, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said of Bloomberg’s recorded remarks: “These are clearly racist comments and are unacceptable.”
“His apology for ‘stop and frisk’ was fake,” Murtaugh said.
Trump caused controversy in 2017 when he said there were “fine people” on both sides of a deadly conflict at a white nationalist rally in Virginia that was disrupted by counter-protesters.
Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Howard Goller