In response, Trump disavowed the behavior of his own supporters in comments to reporters at the White House and claimed that he had tried to contain it, an assertion clearly contradicted by video of the event.
Trump said he was “not happy” with the chant directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, D-Minn., who is Muslim. At the rally Wednesday evening, the president had been in the middle of denouncing her as an anti-American leftist who has spoken in “vicious, anti-Semitic screeds,” when the chant was taken up by the crowd.
Pressed on why he did not stop it, Trump said, “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly.” In fact, as the crowd roared “send her back,” Trump paused and looked around silently for more than 10 seconds as the scene unfolded in front of him, doing nothing to halt the chorus. “I didn’t say that,” he added. “They did.”
Trump’s cleanup attempt reflected the misgivings of political allies who have warned him privately that however much his hard-core supporters in the arena might have enjoyed the moment, the president was playing with political fire, according to people briefed on the conversations.
Among them were House Republican leaders, who pleaded with Vice President Mike Pence to distance the party from the message embraced by the crowd in Greenville, North Carolina. Pence conveyed that directly to Trump, according to people familiar with the exchange.
“That does not need to be our campaign call, like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a top official in the party’s messaging arm, referring to the chant that routinely broke out whenever Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Midway through that race, Trump told reporters he did not approve of that chant, but he never intervened.
Walker, who attended the rally Wednesday night, later posted on Twitter that he had “struggled” with the chant. “We cannot be defined by this,” he said.
Trump’s inner circle immediately appreciated the gravity of the rally scene and quickly urged him to repudiate the chant. Ivanka Trump, his elder daughter and senior adviser, spoke to the president about it Thursday morning, the people familiar with the discussions said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump’s backpedaling reflects a larger issue for Republicans as they devise a strategy for the election. There is wide agreement in the party that branding Democrats as radicals in favor of open borders and what they dismiss as grandiose proposals like the Green New Deal could be a powerful argument in their attempt to hold the White House and make inroads in Congress.
But while Republicans regard Omar and her fellow liberal freshmen who make up “the squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — as particularly good embodiments of that radicalism, there is also some concern that suggesting they leave the country makes the argument too personal and could backfire.
Trump’s freewheeling campaign rallies — at which he aims for maximum entertainment value by testing boundaries and breaking taboos, all while his supporters egg him on with cheers and chants — encourage that kind of language. The feedback loop is so familiar by now that Trump’s staff explicitly warned him before the rally that the crowd would follow his lead as he spoke about Omar and to be careful not to let things spin out of control.
Even before Wednesday’s rally, his aides and advisers had spent days trying to manage the fallout from the president’s tweets Sunday calling on the four Democratic congresswomen, who he said “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” to “go back” and “help fix” them.
All of them are U.S. citizens, and all but Omar, a Somali refugee, were born in the United States.
Many of Trump’s advisers recognized that the tweets had crossed a new line, and they expected him to walk them back at the beginning of the week. But he did the opposite, renewing his call for the women to leave the United States. The charge that his tweets were racist “doesn’t concern me,” the president said, “because many people agree with me.”
Those people included Trump’s defenders on Fox News, like prime-time host Tucker Carlson, who has repeatedly denounced Omar while defending the president against the charge of racism.
After the rally, Trump made no mention of any concern. “Just returned to the White House from the Great State of North Carolina. What a crowd, and what great people,” he tweeted.
Congressional Republicans, who offered only muted protest over the president’s initial remarks about the congresswomen, gave a more vocal response to the spectacle in Greenville. Some suggested that the episode, with its intimations of political persecution and even physical force, had violated sacred democratic norms.
“Those chants have no place in our party or our country,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, told reporters.
Even as they denounced the crowd’s chant, Republican leaders declined to criticize Trump personally.
“There’s no place for that kind of talk,” Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota said to reporters in Washington after being asked about the chant. But, he added, “There’s not a racist bone in the president’s body.”
Walker said he had raised the issue with Pence at a breakfast Thursday, saying the chant was “something that we want to address early,” before it became a staple of the president’s arena-style rallies. “We felt like this was going to be part of our discussion, to make sure that we are not defined by that.”
Some of Trump’s Republican allies defended him against charges of racism while justifying his attacks on Omar.
“I don’t think it’s racist to say,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters. “I don’t think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would be asked to go back. If you’re racist, you want everybody to go back because they are black or Muslim. That’s not what this is about. What this is about to me is that these four congresswomen, in their own way, have been incredibly provocative.”
Omar responded Thursday by calling Trump a “fascist” but said there was nothing new about his behavior or the response of his supporters. She cited his years of false claims that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Later, in Minneapolis for a town hall-style meeting, Omar said to the crowd: “A lot of people are trying to distract us now. But I want you all to know that we are not going to back down.”
House Democratic leaders said they were working to develop higher-level security protocols for Omar and her three colleagues, especially given an onslaught of threatening material on social media, where white nationalists have praised the president’s statements and the hashtag #SendHerBack was trending Thursday on Twitter.
Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Thursday she was worried for her safety. Omar did not express such concern, but worried aloud about fellow Muslim immigrants.
“What I am scared for is the safety of people who share my identity,” said Omar, who has stood out in Congress with colorful head coverings. “When you have a president who clearly thinks someone like me should go back, the message that he is sending is not for me, it is for every single person who shares my identity.”
The latest criticism of Trump’s language comes two days after the House took the remarkable step of passing a resolution condemning his tweets and asserting that they were “racist comments that legitimized and increased hatred of new Americans and people of color.” Only four Republicans voted yes. All others, including Emmer and Walker, voted no.
Hours before the president’s rally, the House killed an attempt to impeach Trump for the statements. But Thursday morning, his race- and ethnicity-based insults were cited by Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, the latest Democrat to call for impeachment, as one piece of evidence that his presidency has “wrought an unprecedented and unrelenting assault on the pillars and guardrails of our democracy.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.