Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House oversight committee that's one of three panels driving the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, died early Thursday from complications from longstanding health challenges, his office said. He was 68.
The Baltimore Democrat died at Johns Hopkins Hospital at about 2:45 a.m. EDT.
Cummings had minimally invasive heart surgery in 2017, which led to an infection that kept him in the hospital longer than expected. He was hospitalized again for a knee infection, but said earlier this year his health was fine. He'd been absent from Capitol Hill in recent weeks and hadn't attended a roll call since Sept. 11.
"Congressman Cummings was an honorable man who proudly served his district and the nation with dignity, integrity, compassion and humility," his wife, Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said. "He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation's diversity was our promise, not our problem. It has been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible journey. I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly."
Trump ordered all flags on federal government grounds to be lowered to half-staff through Friday as a "mark of respect."
"My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings," Trump tweeted. "I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace."
The 12-term congressman challenged Trump regularly after he took office, seeking subpoenas in court as well as Trump's personal and financial records. He resented Trump's comments this year that four Democratic congresswomen of color should "go back" to other countries. On that occasion, Cummings publicly recalled memories of white mobs taunting he and other African American community leaders who tried to integrate a swimming pool in South Baltimore in 1962.
"[H]e showed us all not only the importance of checks and balances within out democracy, but also the necessity of good people stewarding it," former President Barack Obama said in a rare tweet. "Chairman Cummings remained steadfast in his pursuit of truth, justice and reconciliation."
"America lost a giant with the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a man of principle who championed truth, justice and kindness," former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton said.
"Elijah Cummings was the heart and soul of our caucus, a dignified leader with a voice that could move mountains," said House intelligence committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, who worked with Cummings on the impeachment inquiry. "He was our moral and ethical North Star. Now we will be guided by his powerful memory and incomparable legacy. Rest In Peace, my friend."
In July, Trump tweeted a series of attacks against Cummings and his home town of Baltimore, calling it "rat and rodent infested." Cummings chose not to respond, saying only that he didn't approve of Trump's "racist language."
Cummings was one of seven children of Robert Cummings Sr. and Ruth Elma Cummings, who were sharecroppers on the same land where their ancestors had worked as slaves. They moved to Baltimore in the late 1940s. He became oversight committee chair in January after the Democrats took over the House majority, and previously served on the chamber's transportation committee. Before his special election to the House in 1996, Cummings was a trial attorney and later a Maryland state delegate for 13 years. He became a central figure in 2015 amid looting and rioting in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.
"I've often said, our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see," Cummings said at Gray's funeral. "But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see! There's something wrong with that picture."
Cummings famously used a bullhorn to assure rioters that authorities were taking the case seriously. The bullhorn was a gift from Democratic colleagues after California Rep. Darrell Issa once switched off a microphone so Cummings couldn't speak. It bore a gold label that read, "The gentlemen will not yield."