(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump attempted to distance himself from the “send her back” chant targeting a Somalia-born congresswoman that broke out during a campaign rally on Wednesday, following bipartisan admonishment.
“I was not happy when I heard that chant,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “I disagreed with it.”
The chant -- directed at Somalia-born Representative Ilhan Omar, an American citizen from Minnesota -- erupted during the president’s first rally since he sparked a feud with Omar and three other minority women lawmakers. He said in tweets Sunday that the lawmakers should “go back” where they came from and repeated the sentiment in public remarks during the week, comments that his opponents and some Republicans have called racist.
The chanting at his rally in Greenville, North Carolina began after Trump recited a list of grievances against Omar. Trump stopped speaking for 13 seconds as many in his audience yelled “send her back.”
Trump initially offered an alternative account of the event, saying he “started speaking very quickly” after the chant began. But when reporters noted how long he had paused, Trump defended his silence by saying that “there was a tremendous amount of noise and action and everything else.”
Trump’s fight with the four first-year liberal Democrats -- Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib -- is part of his campaign to portray the Democratic Party as beholden to its left-most flank, lawmakers whose ideology the president calls “socialist.” But in his attacks, he crossed a line hardly even approached by his modern predecessors in the Oval Office, echoing exclusionary language white supremacists have historically employed against minorities.
‘Lock Her Up’
Trump has said the lawmakers, who have been sharply critical of the president, hate the country because of their opposition to his policies. He has repeatedly invited them to leave the country, saying on Wednesday: “If people want to leave our country, they can.”
But the chanting -- and the prospect that “send her back” could become a campaign-trail staple, similar to the “lock her up” chant that Trump’s followers directed at Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- prompted fresh outrage in Washington.
Top House Republicans -- including those who voted Wednesday against a resolution rebuking Trump’s words as racist -- said they regarded the chanting as unacceptable. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters that the “chants have no place in our party or our country.”
Tom Emmer, a Minnesota lawmaker who chairs the House Republicans’ campaign committee, told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that there’s “no place for that kind of talk.”
Mark Walker, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, tweeted that the chant was “painful to our friends in the minority communities” and later told reporters he had raised concerns about the incident with Vice President Mike Pence. Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, said he was “disgusted.”
“This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union,” the Illinois lawmaker said in a tweet.
House Democrats discussed the outburst at the rally in a meeting Thursday morning, and several including Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed concern for Omar’s safety.
Ocasio-Cortez of New York said Thursday that she fears for her own safety.
“The whole point is to target us,” she said. “The president is evolving as predicted, deeper into the rhetoric of racism which evolves into violence.”
But when a reporter asked Trump if he was worried that Omar may be in danger, he responded: “Well, I have tremendous support, and I wasn’t happy with that message that they gave last night. But that was a packed arena. We could have sold 10 of those arenas last night.”
He praised the crowd as “great people” in a tweet after the rally.
Some of the president’s usual cheerleaders condemned the chants. British television personality Piers Morgan, known for friendly interviews of the president, tweeted that the rally was “the most sickening moment of his presidency.” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the chants were “wrong, vile, and don’t reflect who we are as Americans.”
Financier Anthony Scaramucci, who is close to Trump and briefly served as his communications director in 2017, tweeted that the president was “moving in the right direction” after his attempt to distance himself from the chants. Scaramucci has criticized Trump’s Sunday tweets about the congresswomen as racist.
Democratic lawmakers have widely condemned the rally incident. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech on Thursday that the scene was “despicable, and eerily familiar to what happens in dictatorships.”
Val Demings, the former Orlando police chief who now is a Democratic congresswoman from Florida, warned of the potential impact of Trump’s rhetoric.
“Words have consequences,” she said.
Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan independent who earlier this month quit the Republican Party over his concerns with the president, said the chant was “the inevitable consequence of President Trump’s demagoguery.”
“This is how history’s worst episodes begin,” he said in a tweet. “We must not allow this man to take us to such a place.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is a close Trump ally, denied racial animus in Trump’s remarks about the Democratic women and in the rally chants.
“A Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back,” Graham said. “If you’re a racist you want everybody from Somalia to go back.”
Graham said the congresswomen sparked the attacks with their criticism of Trump, which he called “incredibly provocative.”
Trump has argued the controversy will pay political dividends because it has forced Democratic leaders to defend the four women, opening them to Republican claims that the party has embraced their liberal policies as well as remarks by Omar and Tlaib that their critics have called anti-Semitic.
But public opinion polling after the the president’s tweets on Sunday suggest that his rhetoric may have hurt him. About 68% of those surveyed in a USA Today / Ipsos poll said the president’s tweets were offensive, and 59% of respondents said his comments were un-American.
But 57% of Republicans surveyed said they agreed with Trump’s tweet telling the congresswomen to go back to the countries “from which they came,” with a third saying they “strongly” shared the sentiment. That suggests the episode may only energize the president’s base -- something his campaign has depicted as essential to his re-election hopes.
--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.
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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at email@example.com, Justin Blum
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