The morning after chants of “Send her back” rang across one of his campaign rallies, President Trump sought to disavow it, insisting that he “was not happy with it.”
Trump made no effort to stop the chanting during his rally in North Carolina on Wednesday night. The crowd broke into the chant after Trump began cataloging grievances against Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Rather than admonish them, he paused for about 12 seconds and looked on, appearing to show approval.
But “I was not happy with it — I disagree with it,” Trump told reporters during a photo session in the Oval Office on Thursday morning.
His disavowal of the chants was rare for a president who hates to appear as if he is either apologizing or bowing to pressure to appear “politically correct.”
It could also put Trump in an awkward position if he renews his criticism of Omar and three other women lawmakers of color who have been his targets over the past week.
The “Send her back” chant echoed Trump’s own words in a tweet earlier this week in which he said that “progressive Democrat congresswomen” could “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” And at the rally, shortly after the chanting, Trump said “Hey, if they don’t like it, let them leave, let them leave.’ Right? Let them leave.”
His apparent turnaround came after a growing number of Republican congressional leaders criticized the chant, but sought to put distance between the crowd and the president.
The need to repudiate the chant was a topic at a breakfast Thursday that members of the Republican leadership had with Vice President Mike Pence.
Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, who had been at the rally, told Pence that the chant was “something that we want to address early,” Walker told reporters.
“We cannot be defined by this,” Walker said, adding that he found the chant “offensive.”
It’s not just what he said. ... It’s the fact that he took time away from governance and staged a rally to whip up hatred.
Pence’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Later in the morning, Republican leaders began publicly criticizing the chant while insisting that the crowd, not the president, was at fault.
“There’s no place for that kind of talk,” Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, head of the Republican congressional campaign committee, said at a breakfast for reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), one of Trump’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill, weighed in as well, telling reporters that “those chants have no place in our party or our country.”
Later, at a news conference, McCarthy avoided repeating his criticism and defended Trump, saying that “the president did not join in” the chanting. “The president moved on.”
Pressed on whether Trump should have told the crowd to stop, McCarthy said the question was unfair.
“You want to dislike the president so much, you want to try to hold him accountable for something in a big audience,” he said.
Democrats said Trump should take responsibility for the impact of his attacks on the four lawmakers. Several also called for added security for Omar.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asked the Capitol Police, who are responsible for lawmakers’ security, to reevaluate the “heightened threats” faced by members of Congress as a result of Trump’s “inflammatory rhetoric.”
The shouts at the rally carried obvious echoes of Trump’s favorite 2016 chant, “Lock her up,” which broke its own norms by calling for the incarceration of his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. That chant became a hallmark of Trump rallies even long after he had defeated Clinton.
In addition to Omar, the other members of the so-called Squad of progressive members of Congress whom Trump attacked are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
All four are American. Three were born in the United States; Omar was born in Somalia.
Trump’s racist tweet attacking them prompted the House to pass a resolution of condemnation on Tuesday, mostly along party lines. Four Republicans and an independent joined the chamber’s Democrats in condemning Trump’s words. His comments at Wednesday’s rally confirmed expectations that he plans to use the clash with the women to drive a hard racial wedge as he campaigns for reelection in 2020.
“It’s not just what he said,” said Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in presidential rhetoric and democratic values. “We’re all tyrannized by remarks these days. It’s the fact that he took time away from governance and staged a rally to whip up hatred.”
Democratic candidates for president all expressed outrage. Sen. Kamala Harris of California called Trump a “coward,” a “bully and an embarrassment.”
“It is vile, it is ignorant. It is shallow. It is hateful, and it has to stop,” she said, during an appearance in Iowa on Wednesday.
Former Vice President Joe Biden called Trump’s performance “despicable,” comparing him to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the last major presidential candidate known for embracing openly racist rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Wednesday’s rally was one of Trump’s longest, stretching past 90 minutes, and especially raucous, with loud boos from the crowd as Trump named members of the Squad.
Trump criticized each of the women by name and gave lengthy descriptions of what he said were anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. He also mocked Ocasio-Cortez for using two names, as is customary in Spanish-speaking communities, insisting he would only refer to her as “Cortez.”
“They said, ‘That’s not her name, Sir,” Trump told the crowd. “I said, ‘No, no I don’t have time to go with three different names.’ We’ll call her ‘Cortez.’”
It was one of many statements Trump made to the crowd to demonstrate his disdain for those who have taken offense to his rhetoric.
Ocasio-Cortez said Trump put millions of people in danger.
“This is not just about threats to individual members of Congress, but it is about creating a volatile environment in this country through violent rhetoric that puts anyone like Ilhan, anyone who believes in the rights of all people, in danger. And I think that he has a responsibility for that environment,” she said.
Susan Benesch, founding director of the Dangerous Speech Project, which studies how rhetoric can lead to violence, said the chanting from the crowd is a “piece of evidence of the sort of impact that the president’s statements have on people and their own speech and, much worse, their attitude.”
“You don’t have to persuade everybody to commit violence” to make rhetoric dangerous, she said. “You have to persuade a critical mass of people that it’s OK or even necessary. The ‘Get out of here. You don’t belong here,’ is a long way from that. I want to be clear. But it’s a step on that road and the response of the crowd is especially worrisome.”
Staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington and Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.